Marine Ecology or Marine Biology….what’s the difference!?!?!?

A few of you may be wondering why the blog is called ‘Confessions of a Marine Ecologist” and not ‘Confessions of a Marine Biologist”.  After all, if you ask a group of school kids what they want to be when they grow up, more than a handful would happily answer “marine biologist”, but I would happily put money on none answering “a marine ecologist”!  Even when I decided I wanted to study life in the ocean, I searched for courses on marine biology, not marine ecology!  And I myself often wondered why people I was introduced to describe themselves as ‘marine ecologists’ instead of ‘marine biologists’.  So what’s the difference?  And, more importantly, why do I feel the need to describe myself as a marine ecologist that will almost definitely get me less traffic and fewer looks of admiration from non-scientists (incidentally, these looks of admiration are quickly replaced by confusion when you explain to people that you work on seagrass instead of dolphins or turtles!)

Coral Reef Community at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia

Why do we find marine organisms in some places but not others? This question is at the heart of all marine ecology!

Let’s start at the difference between the two.  Marine biology is the study of life in the oceans.  The mention of marine biology invokes thoughts of dolphins, turtles, and maybe even some pretty coral-reef fish from Finding Nemo!  However, marine biology is a whole lot more than that, investigating all life in the ocean, from the phytoplankton (very small) to the blue whales (very big).  In short, marine biologists concentrate on studying their chosen species, answering questions like “What type of fish is that?”, “How do the bodies of whales cope with extreme depths?”, and “How do sharks sense their environment?”.  All in all, some pretty cool stuff in my opinion!

So what makes us fully fledged marine ecologist different from our biologist counterparts?  Well, I think that marine ecology is even cooler than marine biology because as marine ecologists we link what we know about the biology of a given species with other plants/animals and the environment as well.  This allows questions to be explored like :”Why do ecosystems that are so depleted in nutrients (like the Great Barrier Reef) have such high biodiversity and productivity?”, “What will happen to the local seagrass and fish population if we build a new jetty here?”, and “How does the presence of keystone predators (like sharks) effect not only turtle and dugong numbers, but the type of plants we see on the seafloor?”.  Nature is extremely complex, and I believe that we can only  gain a limited understanding of how nature works by simply looking at individual species in isolation.  This is where marine ecology comes in….we attempt to understand how species interact with one another and their environment (things like temperature, nutrient/food availability, light……even human-related disturbances).  When we consider that we live in a world where climatic conditions are changing at an unprecedented rate, we need marine ecology to help make predictions about how marine species will respond to such environmental changes, and how best to mitigate against any potential losses.

If we were splitting hairs, ecology is technically a form of biology, but I felt the need to write this post given how passionately I see some researchers stating that they are in one camp or another. Most importantly, we need to have marine biologists and ecologists to help us understand marine organisms and how they interact with the environment and each other.  But as an ecologist (albeit a biased one!) what gets me excited isn’t just finding out how the amazing plants and animals we find in the ocean work, but how they interact with each other and their environment, explaining why we see certain species in some places and not others!

So hopefully this little rant has shed some light on the importance of us marine ecologists!  Though I’m still not holding my breath for any school kids to profess a desire to become a marine ecologists any time soon!


7 thoughts on “Marine Ecology or Marine Biology….what’s the difference!?!?!?

  1. Muriel

    Hi my name is Muriel, and I was looking to find the exact difference between a biologist and ecologist. So far it sounds like I would like to be an ecologist. I am looking at colleges for 2014 and I am confused in what I should major in. I love your description of the two and hope you will be able to help me with this as well.

    1. marineecologist Post author

      Hi Murial,
      Glad that you found my post useful! I can only give you advice based on the experience I’ve had (at an Australian university), but hopefully it will still be handy.
      I double majored in ‘Marine Biology’ and ‘Marine & Coastal Management’ (under the program named ‘Marine Science’). This gave me a pretty decent grounding in a range of subjects, but it became clear to me early on that I was more interested in the biology side of marine science. I fell in love with ecology nearer the end of my degree, and it was this that influenced my choice of research project for my Honours and PhD research. If you know you are just interested in the marine biology side of marine science before beginning your degree (and not bothered by the management), then you could substitute in a zoology or botany major, depending on what your interests are.
      Sorry that I can’t be any more specific than that. However, don’t worry if you start one major and decide to change down the track – my experience is that many of these majors share very similar units early on, and it’s only near the end where there are differences.
      Hope this helps!

  2. Muriel Suydam

    Hi Matt , Thank you so much for responding! This is really helpful I was actually worried you would not reply. Sorry I am responding so late. I will definitely do more research on this subject although I can tell already that I am “feeling” the zoology major. I hope you don’t mind me contacting you if i have more questions.
    Muriel 🙂

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  4. Amber

    Thank you so much for writing this easy explanation, I searched “marine ecology versus marine biology” and your site came up – perfect! I’ve just spent the last half hour reading here. As a member of the general public (not in any way involved with marine science, though I’m fascinated) I really appreciate learning from sites like yours.

    1. marineecologist Post author

      Thanks Amber, it’s great to hear that interested members of the public are enjoying the site as well. I believe that getting the everyone involved and interested in science is really important, as this is the most likely way that positive changes to our environment will happen. After all, there’s no point in just preaching to the converted (other marine scientists)!

  5. Kyiler Bolton

    Hi my name is Kyiler. I am very interested in anything to do with Ecology. I am a Freshman in college right now, and I am currently attending the University of Alabama. I have found alot of intrest in Ecology all of my life. Sadly UA (University of Alabama) does not offer really any classes for what i would like to do. I would like to earn some type of degree that would allow me to do things with animals and interact with them often. I love all types of animals, from ones on land, to the others on the ocean. I have found more intrest in the Marine aspect of ecology, because it seems like it has alot of unknown. I love the beautiful vibrant colors, and uniqueness of the various animals in the ocean. I would love to learn alot more about them, and make a career out of it as well. I have recently looked extensively at Universities in Hawaii that offer both Environmental Science programs, as well as Marine Biology programs. Please get back to me on this, and let me know what you think. Im extremely interested in Marine Ecology, and would like to learn some additional information, also a University where I could go to earn a respectful degree for this career.

    I think you have an awesome job and i admire the passion that you have for it!
    Thanks Matt,



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