Marine Palynology and Paleoceanography

Studying climate and biota in past oceans to project the future

Modern oceans are subject to warming, acidification and decreasing oxygen concentrations due to human actions, which will likely have major effect on biology. We focus on the reconstruction of past ecosystems and climates based on the study of microfossils from ocean floor sediments, notably fossils of dinoflagellates, major components of the ocean’s phytoplankton. Our focus on time periods in the geological past that saw similar changes as today, enables us to use information from present and past oceans to elucidate how future oceans will change.

Research focus

Humans inject massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, which causes warming of the atmosphere and oceans. Moreover, a large portion of the CO2 dissolves in ocean waters, resulting in acidification. Finally, the addition of nutrients to coastal oceans, as well as climate change ultimately leads to a reduction in oxygen content of subsurface ocean water. Warming, acidification and anoxia are major threats to life in future oceans.

Reconstructing past climate and ecology

Crucially, warming, acidification and anoxia are not unique to the present. Specific periods in the geological past offer the opportunity to evaluate the consequences. The Marine Palynology and Paleoceanography group therefore aims to reconstruct climate and marine ecology during such periods of global change.

Paleoecology of dinoflagellates

Our core business is the (paleo)ecology of dinoflagellates, single celled plankton with an enormous ecological variety. The organic dinocysts produced by many dinoflagellates preserve in ocean sediments. By palynological processing in the Laboratory of Palaeobotany and Palynology in the Geolab, these dinocysts can be isolated from sediments to be studied using microscopy. This way, the assemblages of dinoflagellates that once lived in the oceans can be reconstructed, leading to powerful insights into paleo-ecosystem functioning.

We combine palynology with geochemical techniques, notably the study of organic biomarkers in collaboration with the organic geochemistry group, and paleoclimate and carbon cycle modeling with colleagues in Utrecht and elsewehere. The ultimate aim is to understand variations in the state of System Earth, and particularly the role of the ocean, including its biology, physics, and chemistry on various temporal and spatial scales, in the past, present and future.


Understanding environmental change through time

The Marine Palynology and Paleoceanography research program is based on the analysis of recent and fossil marine biota and molecules recovered from marine deposits. The aim is to provide basic contributions to the understanding of the role of primary and secondary producers as monitors, recorders, drivers, and moderators of climatic and environmental change on different temporal and spatial scales, in the past, present and future. The Marine Palynology and Paleoceanography group operates in close collaboration with the Royal Netherlands Institute of Sea Research (NIOZ).

Integration of data

The research program is characterized by an integration of actualistic (observational, experimental) data and/or models with palaeo-data to improve the understanding of past and present behavior of biota in relation to exogenous stressors (e.g. climate change, meteorite impacts, human impact) triggering dynamic biotic processes such as extinction, migration and evolution.

Interface between biology and Earth sciences

Successful implementation of this mission implies the development of research projects on the interface of biology and Earth sciences. The program is an integral part of the interfacultary 'Institute for Palaeoenvironment and Palaeoclimate Utrecht' (IPPU) and is the contribution of Utrecht University to the 'Netherlands Research School of Sedimentary Geology' (NSG).

To study biotic responses to environmental and climatic change we use a selection of biota and organic compounds that are sensitive to such changes and abundantly available in the fossil record.


Bachelor's courses

Introductionary courses in Marine Sciences are offered as level 200 and 300 courses. They are a cooperative effort between the Department of Biology (UU BIO), Department of Earth Sciences (UU GEO) and the Royal NIOZ.

Master's courses and programmes

Marine Palynology and Paleoceanography coordinates two MSc courses, notably the course ‘Introduction to Marine Sciences’, in which biology, earth sciences, physics, chemistry and law of the sea is integrated. MPP also coordinates the course Extreme Climate Transitions, on the reconstruction of deep-time paleoecology and paleoclimate based on organic fossils and complementary techniques. MPP is active in the field of Earth and Environment in three MSc programs:

  • Marine Sciences is a two-year English-taught multidisciplinary Master’s program that includes both lecture courses and research. The first 6 to 9 months are primarily devoted to courses, the remainder of the program is primarily spent conducting independent research and/or a traineeship.
  • Earth Life and Climate is a two-year English-taught Master’s program focused on the reconstruction of past oceans and climate. The first year is  primarily devoted to courses, while second year is primarily spent conducting independent research and/or a traineeship.
  • Environmental Biology: this two-year Master's program comprises about two courses, and two individual research projects of at least half a year. All Master's level courses are offered in English.

MSc Student Research subjects, general introduction

The opportunities for research within Marine Palynology and Paleoceanography are concentrated within three main areas:

  • Paleoceanography and past Global Change
  • Phytoplankton culturing & experimental aquatic ecology
  • Actuo Marine Biology - applied and theoretical

Students interested in research topics with Marine Palynology and Paleoceanography should contact Prof Appy Sluijs.