Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research
Royal Netherlands
Institute for Sea Research

Marine ecosystems

Like on land, habitats in our ocean differ in diversity and functioning. We unravel the ecology of communities and how communities are shaped by environmental controls and biological interactions over time. Similar to tropical reef systems, reef-building organisms like cold-water corals, sponges and mussels can also shape the deep-sea environment, forming hotspots of biomass and biodiversity. Some of which are currently under threat due to increased anthropogenic disturbance. Often these oases are found in areas with sufficient food supply either delivered by hydrodynamic processes like increased turbulence and mixing or additional food availability by in situ primary production at hydrothermal vents. Alternatively, pelagic ecosystems are directly influenced by the atmosphere (e.g. by dissolution of CO2) or runoff from land (e.g. eutrophication). By production in the water column and subsequent transport to the bottom, this ultimately also influences benthic ecosystems. We investigate deep-sea faunal biogeography and biodiversity and explore the influence of productivity, stress and disturbance on diversity.

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Coral reefs

Coral reefs are some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. They play a large role in tropical seas and the deeper oceans, providing important habitats by the creation of 3D structures and playing an important role in biogeochemical nutrient cycles. We try to understand how they can flourish in the nutrient-limited environments and what environmental conditions influence coral growth and reef formation.

Ecology of hydrothermal systems

Hydrothermal vents are unique and highly productive ecosystems where the hot, toxic and mineral rich-fluids support biomass-rich and adapted faunal communities. We explore the influence of productivity, stress and disturbance on diversity and connectivity of vent fauna. This research has taken on special relevance in the light of our increasing demand for mineral resources. Extraction of minerals at hydrothermal vents may be imminent.


Submarine canyons are deep gorges that incise the continental margins and act as funnels for the transport of (food) particles from the productive shallow seas to the deep oceans. The rapid transport of organic matter to the deep sea provides food for deep-sea life and plays an important role in the global carbon cycle. Due to the heterogeneous habitat and the enhanced food supply canyons are hotspots of life in the deep-sea.

Abyssal plains

Despite the extreme environmental conditions that characterise the abyssal environment at 4-6 kilometres depth, polymetallic nodule fields on the abyssal seafloor harbour extremely diverse faunal communities. We explore diversity and connectivity of fauna associated with natural and artificial nodules. This research has taken on special relevance in the light of increasing international efforts in mineral prospecting in the deep-sea.

Water column

The ocean’s photic zone is the place where most of photosynthesis takes place. It therefore plays a major role in carbon uptake and modulating atmospheric CO2. Calcification is another important process that captures carbon and transports it from the surface to the seafloor. Both CO2 concentrations and calcification processes are being monitored and studied under natural conditions in the ocean as well as under controlled conditions in the lab.