Biophysics of a Changing Ocean:

From Plankton to Predators

Research Lead – Dr Lilian Lieber

In the ocean, resources are often highly dynamic in space and time or patchily distributed. Our research is focused on fine-scale predator foraging distributions and movements in relation to biophysical dynamics that enhance prey density or availability, including plankton, surface convergences, or tidally-driven hydrodynamics.  

We apply ocean observing technologies linking physical oceanography and prey mapping with organism observations or tracking. A long-term vision of these efforts is the stepwise integration of physical sensors and bioacoustics with biological sampling techniques, thereby capturing biological scales ranging from microscopic plankton to seabirds, sharks and marine mammals.  

Advancing a mechanistic understanding on the drivers of organism behaviour and distribution is key to predicting responses to a changing ocean. Our insights inform the sustainable development of ocean energy and will help to assess the multi-facetted impacts of ocean warming affecting both our most dynamic coastal seas and the ocean interior. 

Lilian Lieber

Our Research Impacts


A bird’s eye view on turbulence

In our research, we use aerial drones and machine learning approaches to track seabirds and other predators near the sea surface, and we concurrently map underlying physical flow features. Our collaborative studies have revealed that seabird foraging movements are driven by localised physical features enhancing prey availability (Lieber et al. 2021& 2022), with direct application to ocean energy infrastructure introducing turbulent wakes (Lieber et al. 2019). Our findings have greatly informed monitoring approaches to support the sustainable development of ocean energy.

Bioacoustics revealing dynamic flows and scattering from marine organisms

Acoustic instruments such as acoustic Doppler current profilers (ADCPs) use sound waves underwater to quantify water current flows. Applying ADCPs, we have determined various fine-scale hydrodynamic metrics underlying predator at-sea occupancy patterns in tidal stream environments to inform ocean energy developments (Lieber et al. 2018 & 2019).  

Examining the acoustic scattering from marine organisms is used to visualise and quantify the distribution and movement of organisms beneath the ocean’s surface. For instance, following some pioneering studies on using multibeam imaging sonar to track basking sharks underwater, we now frequently deploy scientific echosounders in predator-prey studies ranging from seabirds to whale sharks.  

These insights are being used to integrate field-proven and established technologies (aerial drones, ADCPs, echosounders) with the development of new imaging sensors and analytical approaches to map fine-scale biophysical parameters such as prey fields and hydrodynamics around ocean predators. 

Key Publications

Localised anthropogenic wake generates a predictable foraging hotspot for top predators – Communications Biology 

A bird’s eye view on turbulence – Proceedings of the Royal Society B  

Fine-scale hydrodynamic metrics underlying predator occupancy patterns – Ecological Indicators  


Our Team

MBA Logo seahorse

Dr Lilian Lieber, Mem.MBA

Research Fellow

Dr Lilian Lieber, Mem.MBA

Research Fellow

MBA Logo seahorse

lilian.lieber@mba.ac.uk

I am a marine ecologist passionate about using technology to understand and communicate complex patterns and processes in our ocean. My interest in ocean observation technologies began 10 years ago when I explored acoustic imaging sonars to visualise basking shark interactions as part of my MASTS Prize PhD at the University of Aberdeen. My research has since focused on quantifying bio-physical drivers underlying marine predator foraging behaviour and movements in the context of a changing ocean (anthropogenic activity, climate warming). I embrace opportunities for inter-disciplinary knowledge exchange to find innovation in tools applied elsewhere. This includes the use of aerial drones demonstrating that seabird foraging movements are driven by localised physical features enhancing prey availability, or the use of bio-acoustic instrumentation (multibeam, echosounders, ADCPs) to quantify interactions between predators and dynamic or patchy bio-physics. A long-term vision of my research effort is the stepwise integration of physical, chemical and acoustic sensors with biological sampling (imaging, tracking), thereby capturing biological scales ranging from microscopic plankton to large vertebrates. From previous positions at Queen’s University Belfast, Bangor University and research expeditions with St Andrews University, I have an in-depth knowledge of in-situ data collection and started at the MBA in autumn 2023.

Research Group: Biophysics of a Changing Ocean: From Plankton to Predators