Biological Oceanography

Biological oceanographers study processes that affect and govern coastal, pelagic, and benthic life in the ocean. Our field deals with expanding and contracting time and space scales that are studied with increasing technological skill. At Texas A&M the challenge to current and future oceanographers is not only in using new tools to answer fundamental questions, but to ask new questions.

What We Study

The interdisciplinary nature of biological oceanography provides opportunities to collaborate with physical, chemical and geological oceanographers, and with other scientists and engineers. For example, studying the distribution and productivity of plankton is closely tied with geochemical cycling of nutrients on continental margins and is facilitated by working with remotely sensed data for sea surface height, temperature and color. Our faculty and research scientists who study the biological uptake of carbon dioxide in surface waters and its export to deeper waters (biological pumping) interact with meteorologists and atmospheric chemists, while other faculty and research scientist use molecular tools to study the role of microbes in nutrient cycling. Some other recent projects have included investigations of chemosynthetic bacteria at natural hydrocarbon seeps in the Gulf of Mexico, benthic ecology of the continental slope, and cooperative management of shrimp fisheries with Mexico.

Study of the biology of the hydrocarbon seep communities on the continental shelf and of the dynamics of the oxygen demand in benthic coastal ecosystems will give insight into these little-known ecosystems. Future molecular marine ecology projects are vital to our understanding of the diversity of the biota, and the changing coastal phytoplankton. Apparently increasing frequency of previously "hidden" and sometimes toxic flora will require a knowledge of these organisms and an understanding of their habitat. (See also biological oceanography research topics.)

Current Research Projects

Studies are underway using an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP) and towed nets to relate spatial and temporal variations in regional stocks of zooplankton, micronekton, cephalopods, and midwater fishes to the distribution and abundance of sperm whales, which are endangered species not only in the Gulf of Mexico but throughout the global ocean.

Sophisticated instrumentation such as the flow cytometer allow faculty and students to study phytoplankton community structure and composition, particularly population diversity, biogeography, and biochemical processes of the picoplankton, which measure less than two microns in diameter. A number of studies are focusing on the toxic dinoflagellate responsible for harmful algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico. We are also testing a new flow cytometry/in situ imaging system for real-time quantification of toxic algae species. This system will be implemented with the Texas Automated Buoy system (TABS) -- which consists of 9 buoys along the Texas coast-- to become part of an early warning system for the Ocean Health Observation Program.

Models as tools. The department has an active program to use models as tools for understanding planktonic systems. The interests and projects are diverse, ranging in scale from studying larval fish and invertebrate dispersal off the Texas shelf to studying how chemicals released by falling particles allow microbes and animals to find them. We continue to explore how the physical process of coagulation affects export of organic matter from the oceanic surface. We also are very involved in synthesizing the results of diverse measurements into coherent pictures of food webs by using inverse techniques.

Where We Work

Biological oceanographic studies are conducted worldwide. Our biological oceanography faculty work not only in our own local waters of the Gulf of Mexico, but also in the waters around Antarctica, which are as nearly a pristine environment as any on the earth today. We are studying microbial interactions in coastal waters and phytoplankton community structure in the oligotrophic open ocean. And faculty and students from our Estuarine Ecology Laboratory are studying how primary productivity and algal species succession is regulated at the high end of man's impact, in the extremely eutrophic Neuse River estuary in North Carolina. At the other end of the spectrum, students are examining how hypersalinity affects benthic microalgal communities in a pristine lagoon on San Salvador Island, Bahamas.

Whether on a global or molecular space scale, on a synoptic or geological time scale, the study of biological oceanography offers a challenge to the oceanographer of the 21st Century! It is truly an exciting time to enter the field.

Degree Requirements

Biological Oceanography Academic Advisor

See also Research Topics

College of Geosciences Atmospheric Science Geography Oceanography Geology & Geophysics Environmental Programs Water Degree Program GERG IODP Texas Sea Grant Department Icons