Biological Oceanography (BO)

Biological Oceanography is concerned with the interactions of populations of marine organisms with one another and with their physical and chemical environment. Because these interactions are frequently complex, and because the concepts and techniques draw from many fields, biological oceanography is, of necessity, an interdisciplinary science. Training in physical oceanography, marine chemistry, marine geology, and several biological areas are therefore pertinent. Biological oceanography research is conducted on space/time scales ranging from short-term interactions between individual organisms (mm., sec.) to interdecadal variation in widely dispersed populations. The techniques used are diverse, and even within one space/time domain can include field observation, experimentation in the laboratory, and mathematical modeling.

Research topics include:

  • Primary and secondary productivity and nutrient regeneration
  • Community ecology of benthic and pelagic organisms
  • Food web structure and trophic ecology
  • Population dynamics, habitat changes and disruptions
  • Nonequilibrium ecosystems
  • Microbial ecology and biogeochemical cycling
  • Fishery biology and management
  • Marine mammal ecology and communication
  • Systematics and biogeography
  • Population genetics and evolution
  • Behavior as it affects distributions and food web interactions
  • Climate change impacts including warming, ocean acidification and deoxygenation

California current eosystems, deep sea bilogy, kelp forest and coral reef ecology, and polar biology are among the realms addressed. Development and testing of new tools (molecular, optical, acoustic), design of sampling programs, and statistical/mathematical analyses of data and modeling also are significant activities.

Requirements for Admission

In addition to the general requirements for admission to the PhD program listed here, two years of chemistry, including general and organic chemistry, and a year of general biology are required.  Physical chemistry with calculus may be substituted for physics with calculus where a more elementary physics course was taken.  Zoology or botany may be substituted for general biology.

Preparation should also include a course in general geology and at least one course in each of the following categories: systematics (e.g., invertebrate zoology), population biology (e.g., ecology), functional biology (e.g., physiology).

In special cases, other advanced courses in mathematics or natural sciences may be substituted. Applicants are encouraged, but not required, to submit scores from the biology subject test of the GRE.

Program of Study


Students admitted to the Ocean Biosciences Program (OBP) are assigned an adviser, who is the chair of their three-person guidance committee. Students are assigned to a curricular group based on their interests. Although students may change curricular groups near the beginning of the year, they must commit to a curricular group early on because this determines which departmental exam they will take. The biological oceanography departmental exam is an oral exam based on first year course work and is administered after or near the end of spring quarter.

During the year, students may be supported in a variety of ways. After the first year, the guidance committee is dissolved and the research adviser, and eventually the dissertation committee, provide guidance.

Students in Biological Oceanography are expected to be familiar with the materials presented in the following courses: SIO 210, 240, 260, 270 or 270A, 275A or 277, 280, and at least one of SIO 271, 282, or 294. Other course work is ordinarily recommended by the student’s guidance committee, usually including SIO 278 (or equivalent participatory seminar) one quarter each year, a course in introductory parametric statistics, and at least one advanced-level course in physical, chemical, or geological oceanography. Participation on an oceanographic cruise (minimum of two weeks’ duration) and service as a teaching assistant (one quarter) are required.


Required course work:

  • SIOC 210. Physical Oceanography (4 units)
  • SIOG 260. Marine Chemistry (4 units)
  • SIOG 280. Biological Oceanography (4 units)
  • One of the following:
    SIOG 240. Marine Geology (4 units)
    SIOG 255. Paleobiology and History of Life (6 units)
  • One of the following:
    SIOB 270. Pelagic Ecology (4 units)
    SIOB 270A. Fisheries Oceanography (4 units)
    SIOB 275A. Benthic Ecology (4 units)
    SIOB 277. Deep-Sea Biology (4 units)
  • One of the following:
    SIOB 271. Marine Zooplankton (5 units)
    SIOB 282. Phytoplankton Diversity (4 units)
    SIOB 283. Phycology: Marine Plant Biology (5 units)
    SIOB 284. Marine Invertebrates (6 units)
    SIOB 294. Biology of Fishes (5 units)
    SIOB 296. Marine Tetrapods (4 units)

Elective course work:

Other course work required for the Plan II masters will be recommended by the student’s guidance committee, usually including one quarter of SIO 278, Seminar in Ocean Biosciences (or equivalent participatory seminar), each quarter; a course in introductory parametric statistics; and at least one advanced-level course in physical, chemical, or geological oceanography.

Research in Biological Oceanography

Of the sixteen categories of research at Scripps, the BO group is most closely associated with the following integrated research themes:

Biological Oceanography Faculty and Researchers: