Marine ecology and biology encompasses a tremendous diversity of environments, organisms, natural phenomena and human interactions. At Skidaway, much ecological research focuses on groups of organisms, types of ecosystems, and environmental interfaces where exchanges of matter and energy are relatively large or thought to be particularly sensitive to perturbation. Because of their fundamental role in the production and processing of organic matter, both newly produced and imported, plankton play a central role in virtually all aspects of biogeochemical flows in the upper oceans.
Research at Skidaway particularly emphasizes small plankton, including viruses and bacteria, phytoplankton, protozoans, and copepods. Phytoplankton are the most important primary producers in the oceans, and their photosynthesis produces approximately 40% of all of the oxygen on the planet. They provide the basis for most food webs in the seas including the great fisheries. Open ocean systems are generally dominated by tiny eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells, whereas shelf and coastal systems typically have larger phytoplankton supported by nutrients from terrestrial sources. Bacteria are fundamental to virtually all aspects of ecosystem operation, degrading organic matter, detoxifying contaminants, consuming oxygen, and providing food for but all infecting larger organisms. The major grazers of bacteria and phytoplankton are protozoan zooplankton that in turn are eaten by larger metazoan zooplankton especially copepods, which also eat large phytoplankton. This food web supports higher trophic levels and benthic organisms.
Human activities deliberately or accidentally influence marine environments and ecosystems, and these impacts receive considerable attention at Skidaway. Coastal waters especially are undergoing new trajectories driven by development, population growth, and land use changes, causing changes in water quality, plankton, and ecosystem services. Molecular tools and biochemical approaches are providing unique and powerful means to assess human impacts, including pathogenic bacteria, shrimp viruses, and crab diseases, as well as providing opportunities for mariculture.
Beyond the coastal zone, the South Atlantic Bight provides a buffer between continents and open oceans, where large-scale processes such as river inputs, sediment-water column exchanges, and Gulf Stream interactions regulate productivity and geochemical fluxes. In the nutritionally dilute and vertically-exaggerated world beyond the shelf break, competition for resources is intensified, and food webs start with very tiny cells among the oldest lineages on Earth.