What is Marine Biology? - Definition & Facts

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Marine biology is the fascinating study of plants and animals that live in oceans and other saltwater bodies. This lesson will give a sneak peek at some of the topics marine biologists study - you'll see why it's such a popular field!

Marine Biology 101

What is marine biology and how is it different from other types of biology? That's a great question. Biology, in general, is the study of living things, but this is a broad and diverse collection of organisms. Usually a biologist narrows his or her focus to a subset of biology that matches their personal interests.

Marine biology is the study of animals that live in the oceans or other marine water bodies. In this context, the word marine is interchangeable with saltwater. So, a marine biologist studies living things that live in saltwater environments. Some examples of marine environments may include wetlands or estuaries. This is in contrast to freshwater biology, which is the study of animals in freshwater, like lakes and rivers.

Marine Biology Research

When you think of animals that live in the oceans, you probably think of whales, dolphins, sharks, and fish - and you are right! These are all animals that live in the oceans; however, you might be inadvertently forgetting giant groups of organisms like plankton, seaweed, and critters like shrimp. Marine biology includes all of the living matter in the ocean, from the floating algae particles all the way up the food chain to the great blue whale.

Life in the oceans is very diverse
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Why do we care about studying the oceans? Well, the oceans cover over 70% of Earth's surface, and it's estimated that up to 80% of all living things on Earth live in the ocean. We rely on the oceans for food, for transportation, and for climate regulation (among many other services). Scientists have long recognized the importance of learning about the oceans and have developed many ways to go about studying them; however, despite these advances, humans have still only explored about 10% of the ocean. That means there is still a great deal we don't yet understand!

Marine biologists study all types of life in the oceans
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Animals can be collected in traps or nets, and technology has enabled us to create specialized traps to minimize bycatch (accidental capture of animals we aren't targeting in the study). We also use remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), which are mechanical submarines we can operate from the safety of a boat.

We also have sonar, fiber optics, hydroacoustics, and satellites to help us gather information. It might sound like I'm writing in code, but each of these is new technology that helps us explore the ocean without getting wet (which, admittedly, does take some of the fun out of the process).

For example, sonar uses pulses of sound waves to detect objects in the water. Fiber optics uses special cables that transmit photons (or light) to pass information or data from ROVs back to the main vessel. (Fiber optics cables are also laid across the ocean floor to connect different continents, enabling us to pass information back and forth.) Hydroacoustics studies how sound moves throughout water. Detailed microphones detect sounds underwater and can be used to detect and identify fish and other animals living in the ocean. It's really quite remarkable how much data can be collected without ever getting into the water.

A Marine Biology Legend

You might be familiar with a particular famous French marine biologist, Jacques Cousteau. He is credited with introducing marine biology to the masses, and modern marine biology wouldn't be the same without his contributions. Jacques Cousteau was one of the first scientists to employ scuba gear for use in underwater research; he also co-invented the Aqua-Lung (which sounds pretty cool, right?).

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