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Under the Sea: PUF Partners Tackle Physical-Biological Interactions at Mesoscale in the Ocean

The Physical-Biological Interactions at Mesoscale in the Ocean project is a partnership between the Observatoire Océanologique de Villefranche-sur-Mer of Université Pierre et Marie Curie and the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science of the University of Miami. Under the auspices of PUF, faculty and students from two world-class institutions dedicated to advancing knowledge of the seas throughout the globe joined forces to tackle issues at the intersection of Physics and Biology. Though the two disciplines are often studied and taught separately, oceanography questions most often concern knowledge of both fields.

The project focuses on physical-biological interactions in oceans at scales of a few kilometers, or how currents, temperature, salinity, and other characteristics of seawater influence the lives of biological organisms. Both the French and American partner universities are historic oceanography institutions, situated in unique environments that allow the teams to optimally use PUF funding to advance global knowledge on the ocean. The Observatoire Océanologique de Villefranche-sur-Mer, which began as a Russian oceanography station at the end of the 19th century, is located between Nice and Monaco, and hosts many research teams that are attracted to the bay because of its high diversity of organisms, particularly plankton (freely drifting organisms). The Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science is aptly located on Virginia Key in Miami and is part of a 65-acre leading oceanographic and atmospheric research campus.

The main goals of the project are to facilitate student and professor exchanges between the French and American institutions, to continue the development of three imagining instruments invented there, and to deploy them at sea to study the physical-biological interactions in the ocean. So far, the images taken by these instruments have revealed that characteristics of the water such as salinity, currents, or chlorophyll content drive meter-scale patterns in the distribution of some planktonic organisms, as well as their behavior. These patterns were suspected to exist but are difficult to detect without the kinds of instruments developed by the partner laboratories. Their studies focus particularly on larvae of coastal fish, which only spend a few weeks in the open ocean but are critical for the sustainability of populations. Instruments found that larvae were distributed near the surface of the ocean with very clear patterns and gradients. Furthermore, researchers detected that these small, transparent organisms are fast swimmers and are capable of orienting while in the open ocean, probably using the sun as a compass. The next and final year of the project will focus on the analysis of the images collected by these instruments, facilitating data processing and confirming these patterns, as well as investigating the orientation of fish larvae at night, when they cannot use the sun as compass to orient.

The researchers track their progress via a website:
http://puf.rsmas.obs-vlfr.fr/ and presented their scientific outcomes at the Ocean/Aquatic Sciences Meeting in Hawaii last year and in Granada this year.

In its first two years, the PUF project brought together an average of eleven French and eight American faculty, researchers and post docs per year, along with six French students and four Americans. Five French partners and nine American partners have travelled between RSMAS and Villefranche for lectures, seminars, scientific cruises, classes, research, and training. Extensive student exchanges are at the heart of the project and involve internships, courses, and research assistantships, ensuring a thorough and hands-on French-American education. Through this exchange, the partnership aims to bring together the graduate curricula and expertise of the two universities to train students in both physics and biology from the onset and ultimately forge strong educational ties between the physics and biology fields.

 


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