Marine biology

Research leaders in marine science

The University of Adelaide marine biology program produces outstanding research of our oceans, and leads the way in South Australia for students to pursue a career in science and marine ecosystems.

Marine biology - cuttlefish

Our unique coast

The world's longest east-west coastline runs through South Australia and is a global hotspot for marine biodiversity.

Our students swim with some of the planets amazing creatures; from sea dragons to spawning aggregations of giant-cuttlefish, to singing whales and playful seals and dolphins.

Torrens Island saltmarsh by Alice Jones

Southern seas

The Southern Ocean controls world climate.

The Southern Ocean shapes our extensive rocky cliffs and sandy beaches and is contrasted by gulfs that provide shelter for creatures dependent on mangroves, saltmarsh and mudflats.

Image: Torrens Island saltmarsh by Alice Jones

An olive sea snake (Aipysurus laevis) swimming underwater. Credit: Graham Edgar.

Creatures

Our coasts contain an astonishing variety of creatures - we find up to 300 species of invertebrates (small 'insect-like' animals) in the holdfasts of kelp the size of your fist! 

This gives us a remarkable opportunity to test and provide solutions to some of the world's most important ideas about global biodiversity.

Image: An olive sea snake (Aipysurus laevis) swimming underwater, by Graham Edgar

Marine biology diving photo Alice Jones

Our laboratories

Our labs are in Adelaide, home to the southern coast-line of Australia.

This coast faces the Southern Ocean and is home to the Great Australian Bight - which has 120 islands, two massive gulfs, and an astonishing diversity of marine life, including more species of marine plants than all the world's species of corals.

Image: Underwater diving photo by Alice Jones

 

Research strengths

Our team of marine scientists lead global research, partnerships and industry collaborations that explore how marine life responds to ocean change.

Research that forecasts future habitats

Our scientists are at the forefront of research on the impact of climate change to our marine environments. We use projected estimates of climate change – such as ocean acidification and temperature - as modified by local management – i.e. fishing and pollution. 

One of our key concerns, is the rate of current change. Even if we maintain CO2 emissions at current levels - an unlikely scenario - CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere will increase by over 50 per cent in coming years. This increase will cause ocean acidification as more CO2 is dissolved into the world's oceans.

Our ongoing research uses combination of laboratory and field techniques. Lab studies can be carefully controlled, but the range of ecological interactions is quite limited. Conversely, field studies benefit from interactions within a natural community, but spatial and temporal variation in climate parameters do not behave exactly the same as future ocean conditions. Combining both approaches provide us with key learnings that help forecast future marine habitats.

Recovering lost baselines

Managing natural systems without knowledge of their previous state is like navigating without a map. The power of such research on policy development is hard to overstate.

Disappearing oyster reefs

Two hundred years ago our coast was an oyster reef. Due to population growth of coastal settlements in Australia, our scientists have been able to evaluate the collapse and elimination of native oyster reefs.

What did these reefs once provide nature? Our research explores the restoration of these environments and the food and habitat potential of these reefs for increased fish productivity and filtration capacity for clear coastal waters.

Poleward movements

Our research has discovered that seaweeds have been moving polewards for a long time. Our scientists have shown that continued warming may drive hundreds of species toward and beyond the edge of the Australian continent where sustained retreat is impossible. The potential for global extinctions is profound considering the many endemic seaweeds and seaweed-dependent marine organisms in temperate Australia.

Urban kelp forests

Thirty years ago, we had 'urban' kelp forests. Our recovery of the urban kelp baseline has enabled cross-government consensus on the need to improve water quality.

Previously, the absence of urban kelp was argued to be natural and water improvement unnecessary. South Australia now aims to reduce its release of nitrogen to our urban coast by 75 per cent.

Oysters are ecological superheroes

Oyster reefs fringed Australia’s shorelines and shaped our marine ecosystems for millennia.  

These reefs can increase the abundance and diversity marine organisms through the habitat they create. Restoring our lost oyster reefs can not only help the environment, but strengthen commercial and recreational fishing, and increase tourism for coastal communities.

Oysters have a phenomenal ability to improve local water quality and decrease water turbidity, which allows sunlight to penetrate to the seafloor to enhances seagrass growth. Oysters also filter excess nutrients from the water which result from urban runoff, which helps avoid environmental catastrophes such as Algae blooms.

Their structures can reduce coastal erosion by attenuating wave energy; and their shell building can provide a carbon sink, helping to slow the rate of climate change.

The role of oysters as ecosystem engineers is not dissimilar to the role of trees on land or coral reefs in tropical seas. In fact, oyster reefs are often considered the temperate equivalent of coral reefs.

Two hundred years ago, more than 1500 kilometres of South Australian coastline was covered in oyster reefs teeming with fish and home to thousands of marine species.

Today, oyster reefs in Australia are at less than one percent of their pre-colonial extent, and South Australia's native flat oyster (Ostrea angasi), is all but eradicated.

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  • Reef restoration

    Our scientists are working with industry, government and the community on the largest oyster reef restoration project in the southern hemisphere.

    In the coastal waters of Gulf St Vincent, one kilometre offshore from Ardrossan on the Yorke Peninsula, a 20-hectare oyster reef has been built where historic reefs once thrived. 

    This is a pioneering project that aims to provide the blueprint for future restorations around Australia and the world.University of Adelaide scientists are conducting research to understand the threats posed to oyster restoration, and how we can maximise the survivorship, growth and recruitment of oysters over time.

    Key partners
    • Environment Institute
    • Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources
    • The Nature Conservancy
    • The Ian Potter Foundation
  • Turning the tide on our lost oyster reefs

    We are investigating multiple life stages of our native flat oyster in order to maximise the growth and performance of the restored reef over time. Other research priorities include quantifying the environmental and socio-economic benefits of oyster reef restoration and investigating how these oysters will perform in under future ocean conditions.

    Oysters face many contemporary stressors in the wild, including predation, habitat suitability, food availability and a warming and increasingly acidic ocean.

    Immediate research priorities include an improved understanding of the flat oyster’s reproductive timing, including the identification of peak spawning and recruitment periods throughout the year. We are also determining the preferred substrate and environmental conditions that encourage flat oyster recruitment, allowing us to maximise the recruitment of baby oysters to the restored reef.

    Quantifying the benefits of oyster restoration is a major research priority so we can advocate for future restoration projects. The production of fish, the water-cleaning capacity, and the enhancement of biodiversity by the oyster habitat will be quantified as the reef develops.


 

Marine ecology field trip. Images courtesy Shannon Lauchlan, Estuarine Ecologist

Image: Shannon Lauchlan

Study marine biology

Students will have access to staff who are nationally and internationally acclaimed for research excellence.

There is a strong emphasis on providing students with field experience, and the use of the same equipment that is used in pioneering research across the northern and southern hemispheres.

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  • Bachelor of Science (Marine Biology)

    Marine biology is all about the largest and most diverse ecosystem on the planet - the sea.

    Our undergraduate program prepares graduates for careers in marine biology via training in the use of coherent, logical procedures and rigorous experimental planning for practical work in the field and laboratory.

    Marine biology program details

  • Honours in marine biology and ecology

    Extend your marine biology skills and knowledge through a one-year honours research project in ecology, environmental science, evolution or palaeobiology.

    Honours research projects

    Our researchers also offer projects in science communication, a less research intensive honours program which prepares you for a science career by building wider professional skills.

    Science communication projects

  • Postgraduate and higher degree research

    Want to be involved? Looking for a cutting-edge research project? Our marine biology research precinct is a hub of thriving MPhil and PhD students.

    Whether you are interested in field work, diving research, running laboratory experiments, or don’t want to get your hands wet at all, our diverse research opportunities cater for all student preferences.

    A research degree can help advance your career, change direction or improve your employment prospects by elevating your qualifications, enhancing your skills and building your knowledge base.

 

Our people

We love research and joining with groups across the globe to solve some of the most pressing issues facing our ocean's life. We have changed the way research is done in our fields of climate change, fisheries biology, and conservation. Our teams are led by:

 

Marine biology news

Faculty of Sciences' blog

Eureka! Shellfish reef project wins major award

University of Adelaide marine ecologists are among a team of scientists awarded a Eureka Prize for their research towards rebuilding Australia’s lost shellfish reefs.

River Murray fish species bounce back from Millennium Drought

Research shows some native migratory fish species are now thriving after an earlier threat of extinction.

'Ingenious' scientists feature at key research-industry showcase

Scientists will feature at Ingenuity 2020 – a showcase of student projects exploring real-life applications across all disciplines of STEM.

Scientists in the news this week: September 2020

Here are the stories of University of Adelaide scientists and science graduates in the news this week.

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Environment Institute blog

Our researchers are a key part of the Goyder Institute’s Citizen Science outreach

Environment Institute members, Associate Professor Luke Mosley and Professor Michelle Waycott research is helping the Coorong community. Goyder Institute for Water Research scientists are excited to be working together with citizen scientists as part of Phase 1 of the Healthy Coorong Healthy Basin Program (HCHB). November 2020 marks the 35th anniversary of the Coorong and Lakes Alexandrina and …

The world’s leading aquatic scientific societies with 80,000+ members urgently call for cuts to global greenhouse gas emissions

Dire consequences for freshwater and marine resources without significant and fast action. In an unprecedented statement released recently, the American Fisheries Society (AFS) joined forces with 110 aquatic scientific societies representing more than 80,000 scientists across the world to sound a climate change alarm.  The societies call for drastically curtailed global greenhouse gas emissions to …

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