In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Marine Biogeography

  • Introduction
  • Global Classification of Biogeographic Regions
  • Ecological and Historical Marine Biogeography
  • Methodological Approaches
  • Species’ Geographic Range in Space and Time
  • Ecogeographic Rules
  • Marine Conservation Biogeography

Geography Marine Biogeography
Marcelo M. Rivadeneira
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0167


Marine biogeography is a subfield of the biogeography aimed at understanding the patterns and processes governing the distribution of marine taxa at geographic scales. Marine biogeography is related to several disciplines and subdisciplines, including marine biology and ecology, physical and biological oceanography, ecophysiology, genetics, geography, geology, paleontology, and macroecology. Several subdisciplines have been proposed from the intersection with these branches, alluding to the subject of study (e.g., phytogeography and zoogeography), the temporal scale of driving processes (e.g., ecological biogeography and historical biogeography), the use of phylogenetic and phylogeographic tools (e.g., comparative phylogeography), paleontological data (paleobiogeography), or the combined use of multiple approaches (e.g., integrative biogeography). Progress in marine biogeography has historically been well behind terrestrial biogeography, owing to the large logistical limitations involved in obtaining information in remote areas, including the open ocean and the deep sea. However, marine systems offer unique biophysical, environmental, and biotic features, creating a mosaic of phenomena and challenges unseen in terrestrial biogeography. First, despite the fact that species richness seems to be much lower in marine compared to terrestrial realms, phyletic diversity is much higher in the sea. There are thirty-five marine phyla, compared to only eleven terrestrial phyla. Second, many marine organisms possess complex life cycles, creating unique challenges to understanding their biogeographic patterns and underlying processes. The possession or lack of a planktonic larval phase seems to be an important (yet not the unique) factor controlling the scale of dispersal, gene flow, size of the geographic range, and duration in the fossil record. Third, seawater has different biophysical properties than air, forcing different adaptations by marine organisms. Finally, the marine fossil record is comparatively much superior in preservation than that of terrestrial taxa, opening avenues for robust comparative paleobiogeographic studies across the Phanerozoic, and for testing the importance of evolutionary/historical factors shaping present-day biogeographic patterns.

Global Classification of Biogeographic Regions

Classic and persistent topics of research in marine biogeography include the delimitation of biogeographic units, the identification of areas of biogeographic transition, and the role of present and past environmental factors in shaping those patterns. Early studies can be dated back to the mid-19th century, during the great era of voyages of scientific exploration across the globe. However, the first global marine biogeographic classification was proposed only in 1935 by the Swedish biogeographer Sven Ekman, who published his book Tiergeographie des meeres (later published in English as Zoogeography of the Sea; see Ekman 1953). Almost a century of marine biogeographic studies were summarized by Joel Hedgpeth in a section of the classic book Treatise on Marine Ecology and Palaeoecology (which he also edited; see Hedgpeth 1957). The major task of identifying marine biogeographic areas demanded several decades of study, particularly for many unexplored areas outside Europe and North America. The classification scheme proposed by Briggs 1974 was a major attempt at achieving a global synthesis, and it set the basis for most of the recent systems of classification (e.g., Spalding, et al. 2007). Most of global biogeographic classification schemes suffer from a natural representational bias toward coastal ecosystems (Hayden, et al. 1984), but recent research programs provide a biogeographic classification for open-ocean or deep-sea ecosystems (UNESCO 2009). Many of these classification schemes are hierarchical (e.g., realms, provinces, ecoregions, see Spalding, et al. 2007), although the hierarchies used have varied across studies. Methods used to build classification schemes also vary among studies (UNESCO 2009). For instance, whereas Briggs’s classification (see Briggs 1974) uses patterns of endemism to define marine provinces (with a minimum 10 percent threshold), Longhurst’s biogeochemical provinces (Reygondeau, et al. 2013) and the GOODS classification (UNESCO 2009) are based in abiotic hydrographic and oceanographic variables. The Large Marine Ecosystems of the World (LME) classification also includes socioeconomic criteria to delimit biogeographic units. Some biogeographic classification schemes are based on a synthesis of biotic and abiotic information via expert criteria (e.g., Spalding, et al. 2007) and other uses of statistical methods for particular taxa (see Fenberg, et al. 2015; Moalic, et al. 2012; and Kulbicki, et al. 2013—all cited under Methodological Approaches). Many global classification schemes are available to users as shapefiles in the Marine Ecoregions portal. The Ocean Biogeography Information System (OBIS) database contains millions of geo-referenced occurrences of a wide variety of marine species, from viruses to whales, and provides an excellent starting point for new studies in marine biogeography.

  • Briggs, John C. Marine Zoogeography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.

    Professor John Briggs provided the first detailed global biogeographic classification scheme, including more than fifty-three provinces worldwide.

  • Ekman, Sven. Zoogeography of the Sea. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1953.

    The first biogeographic classification of the global ocean was proposed in this classic book. Originally published in 1935 in German.

  • Hayden, Bruce P., G. Carleton Ray, and Robert Dolan. “Classification of Coastal and Marine Environments.” Environmental Conservation 11 (1984): 199–207.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0376892900014211

    This study updates Brigg’s scheme for coastal marine ecosystems, defining forty provinces based on their environmental characteristics and faunal composition. Importantly, this visionary work is aimed at helping establish the bases for marine conservation plans decades before its popularization.

  • Hedgpeth, Joel W. “Marine Biogeography.” In Treatise on Marine Ecology and Palaeoecology. Edited by Joel W. Hedgpeth, 359–382. New York: Geological Society of America, 1957.

    This is the first major synthesis of marine biogeography, summarizing almost a century of scattered studies, including major biogeographic units recognized to that date, a lucid discussion of the role of sea temperature on species distribution, and the causes of the bipolarity phenomenon.

  • Large Marine Ecosystems of the World.

    This web portal introduces the Large Marine Ecosystem (LME) biogeographic classification scheme developed by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), originally aimed at engaging particular actions for management and conservation. LMEs are large coastal areas (there are sixty-four distinct LMEs), defined according to four criteria: bathymetry, hydrography, productivity, and trophic relationships.

  • Marine Ecoregions.

    An online source compiling shapefiles for different schemes of geographic classification of the oceans, including exclusive economic zones (EEZs), FAO fishing areas, Large Marine Ecosystems of the World, Longhurst Biogeographical Provinces, and Marine Ecoregions of the World (MEOW).

  • Ocean Biogeography Information System.

    The OBIS initiative is part of IODE program of UNESCO/IOC, and is aimed at building and maintaining georeferenced information of the occurrence of marine forms of any marine taxa. Currently, it harbors more than forty-seven million occurrences.

  • Reygondeau, Gabriel, Alan Longhurst, Elodie Martinez, Gregory Beaugrand, David Antoine, and Olivier Maury. “Dynamic Biogeochemical Provinces in the Global Ocean.” Global Biogeochemical Cycles 27 (2013): 1046–1058.

    DOI: 10.1002/gbc.20089

    An update and upgrade of Longhurst’s classification scheme based on biogeochemical provinces. The new analyses confirms the existence of fifty-six provinces, but shows that interannual changes in oceanographic conditions lead to temporal dynamics in the position and extent of these provinces.

  • Spalding, Mark D., Helen E. Fox, Gerald R. Allen, et al. “Marine Ecoregions of the World: A Bioregionalization of Coastal and Shelf Areas.” Bioscience 57 (2007): 573–583.

    DOI: 10.1641/B570707

    This is a major attempt to create a global biogeographic classification scheme of coastal areas of the world, based on a review of previous studies and expert criteria. The Marine Ecoregions of the World (MEOW) scheme expand previous classifications and includes 12 realms, 62 provinces, and 232 ecoregions.

  • UNESCO. Global Open Oceans and Deep Seabed (GOODS)—Biogeographic Classification. IOC Technical Series 84. Paris: UNESCO-IOC, 2009.

    A joint effort of an international team to provide a major synthesis of the biogeographic classification of open oceans and the deep sea, based on GIS analyses of hydrographic, topographic, and oceanographic information.

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