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An Introduction To Marine Biology
An Attempt At Introducing The Course Of Study That Has Dominated My Life For The Last Five Years
Marine Biology is a fun and fascinating area of study - the ocean is an ever-expanding reservoir of knowledge, resources and jobs, in everything from deep sea exploration to fish populations, to hydrodynamics, to aquaculture.
Oh gods... I'm not sure how I'm ever going to finish this! I keep trying to introduce general concepts, then get carried away by intertidal zones, deep sea vents, upwelling, aquaculture, marine reserves, echinoderms, lecitrophy, upwelling, swimming modes... Please excuse the occasional forays into random details! I'm aiming to give and idea of what Marine Science - most specifically, Marine Biology - entails. This is a huge topic, and I'll try to both stay ON topic and give interesting examples.
A marine science degree is hard to categorise. "It's about the ocean". Oh great, thanks. That really narrows it down. But that's basically what it is.
A proper marine course of study involves multiple disciplines, which tend to be lumped together under the label of 'marine'. Most specialists - such as myself - also took a number of non-marine courses (mostly Biological sciences in my case). Degree structures vary between institutions - some may not even offer it, some may offer a full Marine Science degree. At my university, I took a Biology degree, specialising in marine science. this involved taking specific fishy-related biology papers, as well as some specific marine science papers. To really make use of your degree, though, you usually have to specialise a bit more - I'm currently finishing up a postgraduate diploma in Marine Science.
All the photos on this page are mine, taken over the years at various beaches and aquariums - often while on university field trips! (and you can find them all in my Zazzle store).
Do You Know Much About Marine Biology? - Or do you struggle to tell apart a sardine and a shark?
How would you rate yourself - educated or uncertain? (oh, and don't forget to keep reading - I do a lot more talking below!)
WARNING: Side Effects of Studying Marine Biology Include...
Excessive study of marine biology will result in some or all of the following dismaying symptoms
- increased awareness of overfishing when trying to buy fish for dinner and a tendency to come out with depressing "Well, actually..."s when people say 'I got this fish, THIS one's probably fine, isn't it?'
- a markedly decreased level of tolerance for climate change deniers, entrenched fishing industries, oil drilling, Creationists and people who take more than their quota when fishing. 'Game park' style marine reserves will make you start eyeing fishing rods as murder weapons.
- a tendency to excavate rockpools to admire the tidal zonation of small shells and indistinguishable seaweeds
- Worse, to casually refer to marine and intertidal species by their latin names while in company. "oh yes, look, a Pseudolisthes elongatus" you'll remark interestedly, as your companion shrieks at the scuttling shell.
(I wrote an entire assignment on this hermit crab once - it's a native New Zealand half or false crab, also known as a porcelain crab and evolved from lobsters. It lives under rocks in the intertidal, is often a lovely blue, and only has six legs, not eight).
- paranoia about referencing every single statement that you did not personally research, which will spill over into over areas of your life and make less demanding projects and assignments a lot more difficult
- a strong desire to learn to scuba dive, which is both very expensive, difficult to fit in, incredibly uncomfortable for the preparation and majority of the activity, and potentially dangerous. (But AWESOME when it's all working right). Incidentally, octopus eyes are a splendid example of parallel evolution of eyes - they are structured completely differently to ours, but work just as well.
- taking the stingray's side in the Stingray vs. Steve Irwin debate. Seriously, they're awesome, lovely creatures and you have to hover really close over them for them to attack. I've snorkelled over them dozens of times, and swum in 'Stingray Arch' in the Poor Knights marine reserve, with hundreds of them swimming around and below.
The short-tailed ones get really big - over a metre across - and very heavy. They can also live around twenty years.They keep some in a large shall water pool at the Kelly Tarlton's Aquarium in Auckland, and they actually climb their keepers after food! Eagle rays are a lot smaller - they swim differently and are sort of diamond shaped.
In New Zealand, we have a local subspecies of Orca that chases and eats stingrays - the only ones in the world to do so!
- cheerfully dissecting your whole grilled Snapper fishhead at dinner in a nice restaurant and trying to show interesting bits to the people next to you (forever to be referred to as the 'eye' incident. Did you know snapper eyes are all jellylike, but have a small round ball that's really bouncy, in the centre?)
- making a beeline for any aquariums in any cities you visit, and going into withdrawals without a sufficiently impressive one nearby. And to the detriment of any companions, the ability to spend hours and hours slowly examining all the tanks and their inhabitants.
Science And My Artwork
The effect of biological knowledge on science
Careful study of fish has had both an occasional fishy influence on my pictures and added more realistic touches to my fish and mermaids, even the movement of waves! Scuba diving improved my sense of what bubbles looked like as they rose and how fish swam.
Marine Science Around The World
What can you expect to be studying at your university?
Marine science is a popular and fast-growing field around the world and more and more universities are offering courses for it. I'll just mention a few highlights that I know particularly well and try and give an overview of the globabl situation.
There are a few institutes in the USA (e.g. Florida), and Japan. Japan mostly focuses on 'whaling research'. These places mostly look at commercial applications - Aquaculture and fish stocks, for example. They often have major fisheries interests (especially in Japan) and defence (mostly in the USA), studying currents and sonar.
The UK has a lot of interest in marine studies, which is natural as they're an island with a lot of fisheries! Plymouth has a very well established marine research sector, and an absolutely amazing aquarium. It is part of the Plymouth Marine Science Partnership. My uncle is actually a Fisheries Officer in the area, and took me to see it! I also got to visit the Brixham fisheries offices, which has the most ships coming in, out of the entire country!
New Zealand has a strong interest in marine science, and has three or four Universities offering degrees. The University of Auckland, where I'm studying, as well as Otago and Victoria (based in the South Island and Wellington, respectively). Students from the latter two joined up with Auckland Uni for a new class, involving joint field courses, in 2010, which is how I know.
Marine Science In New Zealand
More environmental and more important!
New Zealand is a lot more focussed on sustainability and the environment - partly due to a lower level of paranoi...uh, I mean, emphasis on defence, and because of the high commercial importance of the 'clean green' image of New Zealand's fish. Fisheries are vital to New Zealand's economy - the fourth largest income earner.
New Zealand is in an odd position - it also has the fourth largest EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) in the world- which is a certain area of ocean that 'belongs' to New Zealand. New Zealand waters are a LOT bigger than New Zealand land area. Despite this, while 30% of land is in some kind of national park or reserve, less than 1% of New Zealand coastal waters are protected - the majority, about another 5% - is around the very far distant Kermadec Islands, which are entirely protected. New Zealand had the first marine reserve in the world, but unfortunately the lovely right wing National Government has placed a moratorium on marine reserves in the exclusive economic zone, has instructed the Department of Conservation to not apply for the marine reserves, and has declined recent marine reserve applications.
Another side effect is the association of certain species and topics with specific lecturers! Several of my lecturers were experts on a certain area of interest - herbivorous fishes' digestive processes, triplefins, echindoerms, algae, marine reserves, and sandhoppers!
Multiple Disciplines and Deep Sea Vents
Hydrothermal undersea vents are a good example of multidisciplinary marine science
Academic 'disciplines' are distinct subjects such as Geology, Biology, English, Maths, Physics, Geography, Chemistry and so forth. Anyone who studies marine science quickly finds that a knowledge of one area of science is not enough. For example, I had to learn about topics as wide ranging as Freeze Tolerance vs Freeze Avoidance bio chemical reactions, to Organic Aquaculture!
Deep sea vents are a great example. Created by plate tectonics (Geology), they vent unusual chemicals and gases (Chemistry) into the water around.They also tend to be hot, heating the water a certain amount (Physics). Water currents (Hydrodynamics) affect the local habitat (Community ecology) and disperse minerals and chemicals such as sulphur from the vent into the water. Around these vents, very unusual lifeforms make up very unique communities of new species (Taxonomy, Zoology) that depend on chemosynthetic bacteria (Biochemistry) to grow, rather than relying on energy from the sun, stored in the form of organic matter!
It's possible they represent an equivalent to the first life on earth (Abiogenesis), and may not even me related to existing known species (Genetics). They may be extremely rare (Conservation ecology) or possess secret miracle cures for cancer (Medicine, Biochemistry). Some of them seem capable of detecting light - highly unusual at a depth at which no natural light penetrates (Physics). Any reliable study of any of these species' lifestyles must almost inevitably result in a great many observations, such as how many vents actually have communities, and what concentration of highly poisonous hydrogen sulfide is too high to be safely used? And do the numbers result in any significant (Statistics) conclusions?
And of course, how were these vents discovered? A submersible vessel (Engineering), or robotic camera, trundling the ocean floor (Robotics)? How about maps, navigation, air supply, recordings? What effect will climate change have? Is the vent affecting the local plantlife (is there plantlife?) and mineral depositions?
The depths of the ocean remain one of the last great mysteries on Earth. Far below the waves is an incredible place teeming with life, but few people have seen it... until now. For the first time you can be there, 12,000 feet below the ocean's surface, inside an unparalleled undersea volcanic world filled with strange creatures and dramatic landscapes. You've never seen anything like this as brand-new lighting technology far superior to anything that's ever been used before illuminates this secret realm.Exhibited to great acclaim in IMAX and other giant-screen theaters around the world.
You could focus on a few of these areas, but you couldn't get any kind of complete picture. Most marine science outposts and expeditions have scientists of various specialties aboard - but you need to be aware of the existence of water currents and velocity, or the process of parallel evolution, in order to be able to recognise that the specifics should be passed to the expert.
Lies, Damned Lies And Statistics
The scientific name for biology is 'Mathematicus statisicalii'
They lied about the science. Only 24% of Marine Biology is Biology.
What's the rest, then? It's actually mostly maths. Every single assignment, after the first year, was 40% statistics. A statistics paper was mandatory for the Marine Science specialisation. This made me very sad, as I'd taken Calculus in my last year of school instead, thinking that would probably be the most useful!
The typical biology student is “hardwired” to be wary of any tasks involving the application of mathematics and statistical analyses, but the plain fact is much of biology requires interpretation of experimental data through the use of statistical methods.
This unique textbook aims to demystify statistical formulae for the average biology student. Written in a lively and engaging style, Statistics for Terrified Biologists draws on the author’s 30 years of lecturing experience. One of the foremost entomologists of his generation, van Emden has an extensive track record for successfully teaching statistical methods to even the most guarded of biology students.
For the first time basic methods are presented using straightforward, jargon-free language. Students are taught to use simple formulae accurately to interpret what is being measured with each test and statistic, while at the same time learning to recognize overall patterns and guiding principles. Complemented by simple illustrations and useful case studies, this is an ideal statistics resource tool for undergraduate biology and environmental science students who lack confidence in their mathematical abilities
You WILL Need A Good Stats Book - Although the internet can subsitute for late night panics!
Why? How? What? Huh?
Well, it turns out that when you go out and experiment, and the fish swims a certain speed, or pops out a certain number of eggs, or bites off a specific number of fingers, you need to be able to indicate if that's a normal response, a specific response to something like water temperature, or if the fish just really hates you. Or if it's because of that chicken sandwich you were just eating.
This means you have to repeat the experiment as many times as possible, so that there can be no possible confounding factors and lots and lots of lovely data to count. And once you have these numbers, you run one or more many fun*, exciting**, straightforward***, understandable**** and relevant***** statistical tests upon your helpless data until you can discern a definite pattern, or lack of one. The student T test is a common standby; Tukey's , Chi-Squared and ANOVAs are all arcane methods of torture and p values will become small rallying flags to wrest from the enemy data and wave high in your conclusion! The P value is less than [arbitrary percentage level]! The chances of this result being an outlier from the expected normal distribution are so minuscule that it is more likely that the original theory is wrong! My hypothesis is proven!
You never get to say that you have proven your hypothesis. it is always that you have failed to disprove it.
To make matters worse, biologically significant is not the same as statistically significant. For example, toxins - in small amounts, they're deadly, in large amounts they can be completely harmless. Variations may be due to random chance and statistics, or they may actually be tied to some other factor.
*** More lies
**** More... you get the idea
***** Sometimes lies. Depends if you pick the right test. And statistics do not mean anything to a snail, so it may not actually tell you anything at all.
You need a good basic statistics book! You will continue to need it! Most of the tests you learn will only be used once a year or so, each assignment being slightly different, and by higher levels... well, you're supposed to know the stuff. Too bad you've never practiced it since that course two years before.
There are a lot of online sites where you can plug in your data and have it spit out the result, but you need to understand what it's asking for. And as sometimes they give conflicting results... well, you need to be able to figure out what was meant to happen.
This was recommended by my lecturers and I managed to get my hands on a copy in a book sale! It's more a guide to what and when,a and experimental design, than a manual of actual statistics, so you'll want this together with a basic statistics book.
Provides an excellent introductory text for students on the principles and methods of statistical analysis in the life sciences, helping them choose and analyse statistical tests for their own problems and present their findings.
Intertidal Zonation - Marine biology means a lot of field trips to the beach
The study of intertidal zonation begins in high school (or even primary school!) and continues all through University. The only difference is that in your first year, you're supposed to notice that it exists, and in the last year, you're meant to explain it! (Explain the specific case you looked at, not that zonation in general happens).
Most intertidal studies are done on rocky shores - the ones that are made of rocks and pebbles and interesting rockpools - for the simple fact that more actually happens, and they're easier to study. Sandy beaches tend to have very little going on that can be easily sampled - most of it is in the sand, and after you've dug more than a foot it starts to get silly!
Sandy beaches send to have a lot of shellfish, and a slow gradient of soggy, mud-like, waterlogged sand, up to moist, up to dry, with the only species being sandhoppers in the rotting tideline seaweeds.
Rocky shores have very marked patterns - or vertical 'zones' - of seaweeds and animal life. Mostly, you look at the different algae (usually divided by colour and species), and the sessile creatures such as barnacles, mussels and oysters, which tend to take over.
The upper limits of the species is usually decided by the environment - how long it's out of water, mostly, and how much of a pounding the waves will give it. The lower level is usually limited by competition from the species below.
Competition isn't the only factor - some species, for example, keep down rivals of others species or provide shelter. Different barnacles grow separately or in huge clumps and can tolerate different levels of exposure.
Study Your Greens, Reds And Browns: Algae - The joys and frustrations of seaweed
Seaweed is actually alga, not a plant. Microalgae are the very small kinds, that aren't usually visible, and macroalgae are the 'normal' seaweeds that you'll find washed up at the beach.
While some seaweeds are instantly identifiable, most are not - even with a field guide! It can be incredibly frustrating when you get something like the picture on the right, which we ended up calling 'bright green algae No. 1'!
Red, brown and green algaes aren't always red, brown or green - the names come from the pigments, not the expressed colour!
Problems With Marine Research
The ocean is the last great unknown - for good reason!
- Sheer size
- Difficult physical environment
Mammals - cetaceans, seals and sealions, of which New Zealand has various examples - don't feature much. They're all protected, more or less, and are top predators, but aren't major areas of study.
We have looked at:
- Diving adaptations (all adapted from existing anatomy, showing that they cam from land animals)
- Whale song, as a side project in frequency measurement, from masters thesis data.
- And I know that a couple of the people at the university are involved in identifying individual humpback whales and tracking their pods using tail and fins shapes, and DNA analysis.
- Fur seals also like raiding aquaculture farms, which can be an issue for proposed farms.
These eels are really big! They can get well over a metre in length and would need to hands to circle them. They taste like chicken!
Like all eels, they travel from the rivers out to sea to spawn and then return as little elvers to grow up big and strong in the rivers. Recently, they've been investigated for Aquaculture, and I got to see some tanks full of variously sized wriggling eels.
The New Zealand Lobster
Local New Zealand crustacean that lives in rock crannies around the coast. No claws, but very spiky, and extremely popular targets for divers.
- Night-time migrations
- Marine reserves
- Proposed oil drilling in the South Island
- Maturity and community dynamics
Water Movement Physics
- Currents and water movement
- Sound, otoliths
- Fish body shapes - carangiiforms, anguilliforms and so forth
An Ambitious Project?
Distilling an entire degree into a single page is probably impossible!
- Other things I want to cover....
- Aquaculture - the good and the bad
- Crayfish migration
- Practical issues with studying the ocean
- Algae blooms
- Deep-sea processes in general
- Oil drilling
- Climate change
- Scuba diving
- Examples of assignments I have done
© 2014 FlynntheCat1