Professor John Spicer

Professor John Spicer is a marine zoologist at the University’s Marine Institute with expertise in ecophysiology. 

His research interests focus on the innermost workings of marine organisms in a quest to understand how the work and evolve in the wild, and how they adapt to climate change.

An eminent scientist renowned for his expertise in ocean acidification and hypoxia, he has contributed a substantial wealth of knowledge to the field over three decades, resulting in over 180 research papers, multiple academic books, writing for popular culture, and advising national and international policymakers.

Ancient Mariner Big Read 

Stars of the stage and screen, arts and music transform one of English Literature’s most celebrated poems, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

An epic tale of adventure, fear and fascination this 18th-century science fiction has prophetic messages for the natural world, climate breakdown and mental health globally relevant in the 21st century. Free to access, the Ancient Mariner Big Read comprises 40 broadcasts narrated by familiar voices, each paired with artwork by a contemporary artist. As scientific advisor for this internationally acclaimed project John contributes scientific, cultural and personal commentary, and is featured as Reader No. 35 alongside artwork by Grace Schwindt.

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Featured research

Antarctic gigantism and hypoxia

A key study in 2019 by John and his colleague Dr Simon Morley, British Antarctic Survey, supported the theory that larger marine invertebrates and fish are generally more sensitive to reductions in oxygen levels (hypoxia) than their smaller counterparts, and therefore are more likely to be sensitive to future climate change.  

Some species in the polar regions experience gigantism, whereby the higher rate of oxygen found in cold water regions leads to occurrences of increased body growth and development. 

As climate change sees our oceans warm and, with it, oxygen levels decrease, the concern is that these changes will have a greater, negative impact on large species than small.

The study found that when oxygen levels were reduced, generally the larger species saw a reduction in performance. The exceptions lie where the species may have evolved innovative mechanisms to compensate for a lack of oxygen. 

This study resulted in a high volume of press coverage, including the BBC, The Independent, The Guardian, The Mirror, Metro, and others. 

Embryonic development

John, working with colleagues Dr Oliver Tills and Professor Simon Rundle, has been conducting in-depth research into how marine organisms develop from embryos, and how environmental changes – such as temperature or oxygen levels – may influence or change that development.  

From a population on freshwater snails, their research has shown that the embryos of genetically related species will have more similar developmental responses, suggesting that species variation may have a genetic basis. One of the greatest challenges facing researchers is how to track embryonic changes in real-time. The team has developed a unique, automated method of looking at developing embryos and larvae of marine animals called EmbryoPhenomics – a combination of OpenVIM custom bioimaging software and EmbryoCV software that automatically measures the biological responses.

The technology is able to identify how the organisms develop in different conditions, such as when organs are formed, growth, movement and heart rate, and will allow researchers to hugely increase the number of animals that can be studied at any one time into the hundreds.