What’s the difference between an oceanographer and a marine biologist?
What do I mean? In a recent article by Boero we obtain a brief overview of this phenomenon but, before I discuss the article, let’s just read this excerpt from the URI Marine Biology Program webpage. Simply put, Oceanography is the study of the oceans and the biological, chemical, physical and geological processes that occur within it. It is traditionally a subject studied in graduate school and requires undergraduate training in biology (or marine biology), chemistry, physics and/or geology. Marine Biology focuses on the biology of the organisms that live in the oceans. As such it is a subdiscipline of biology, but has some overlap with the field of Biological Oceanography.
In a recent article entitled: Marine Sciences: from natural history to ecology and back, on Darwin’s shoulders – Advances in Oceanography and Limnology, Boero brings up the historical differences between biological oceanography, marine biology and ecology. It’s time we turn our attention to this topic for discussion and opinions. I believe in both practice (applied science) and philosophical approach (or culture) that there is a distinct difference between an oceanographer and a marine biologist. You could however be a biological oceanographer and thus bridge the gap between fields.
What is the difference between Marine Biology and Oceanography?
In Boero’s article, he presents several compelling points that support this difference in approach and philosophy. One basis for distinguishing between marine biology/ecology and oceanography was the need for an experimentally driven hypothesis approach. In marine science, marine biology and marine ecology, this progression occurred as a result of having access to the marine environment. For instance, many early marine stations and laboratories were/are founded on coasts. Access to flowing seawater provides the ambient conditions necessary for experimental work in the laboratory. The proximity of a marine biological station to the surrounding waters and coastline also provides a multitude of possibilities with which to conduct experiments and monitoring of the environment. In the field of oceanography, the scale is much broader (global oceans) and thus sampling is restricted due to logistical and financial considerations. This often leads to large scale observations over short periods of time. Hence, the phrase “snapshot in time” that is frequently used to describe the results. The challenge of applying observational data to address larger ecological questions is often accomplished through the use of applied models. In marine biological work, experimental approaches are restricted to a specific location, habitat and thus a smaller spatial scale whereas the experiment or monitoring can be ongoing over time to address longer temporal scales.
The dynamics of these distinct fields are changing quite rapidly. The field of oceanography has advanced the efforts to acquire data and address experimental questions across wider spatial scales using in-situ observations, monitoring and high resolution autonomous platforms. This is a fancy way of saying that we’ve finally got the technological capacity to cover the entire ocean. This makes the world seem like a very small place. Satellite observations and real-time monitoring networks have progressed the field of traditional ship-based, seagoing oceanography to a new level. On a different scale, the landscape of traditional marine biology and ecology has drastically changed with the adoption of molecular tools to address ecological problems. In the field of biological oceanography, oceanographers can now use molecular probes in a literal and figurative sense to search vast areas across space and time for highly specific purposes. This quantitative information can be applied in a qualitative sense to discern global trends, develop hypotheses, etc. With an emphasis on the observational nature of it’s sister field (pure oceanography), biological oceanography can happily draw on the past while using the sophisticated tools of experimental molecular biology used in the field of marine biology and ecology.
The most important point in Boero’s article is that the methods of approaching the different fields (oceanography and marine biology) have led to a distinct separation. In methodological approach, publishing and global understanding (eg.model development) oceanography and marine biology do not connect well. The “culture” of the fields is apparent if you’ve ever found yourself at a marine laboratory. If you choose carefully, you can find a nice mix of both fields which has led to many “interdisciplinary” programs and research departments. There are distinguished research laboratories that fall into this category (some of which you can explore on my links page) but for the most part, it becomes very clear whether you’re an oceanographer in a sea of marine biologists or you’re a (marine) biologist in a sea of oceanographers. Can you tell the difference?
Here’s a humorous approach to the dilemna:
Are you are satisfied to fiddle with a piece of electronic equipment for hours on end despite no sleep, no manual and the fact that there is only 1 other similar instrument in the world? – you’re an oceanographer in your element
Do you want to look at the organisms from the plankton tow? – you’re a marine biologist/biological oceanographer and give yourself more points in the biological category if you also have taxonomic expertise and could place these microbes in functional groups!
Or do you just want the average chlorophyll value from the 100 plankton tows on a cruise? – then you’re an oceanographer or maybe a modeler just looking for a quick way to get some biology in that algorithm.
Perhaps each of us as scientists is guilty of perpetuating these generalizations. The point is that there are some clear differences between the disciplines, but that those should not prevent unified progress towards solving global scale problems. In some ways, I think that each field could take a few lessons from each other. This applies across fields as well, from freshwater and marine aquatic sciences to terrestrial biology and ecology.
Boero, F. (2010). Marine Sciences: from natural history to ecology and back, on Darwin’s shoulders Advances in Oceanography and Limnology, 1 (2), 219-233 DOI: 10.1080/19475721.2010.533350