Professor Ursula Witte

Professor Ursula Witte

Chair in Zoology

Professor Ursula Witte
Professor Ursula Witte

Contact Details

work +44 (0)1224 274413
fax 0044 1224 274402
The University of Aberdeen Oceanlab
Main Street
AB41 6AA

Research Interests

Benthic ecosystem functioning, anthropogenic impacts and climate change

The Witte group investigates the functioning of benthic marine ecosystems and benthic-pelagic coupling  from the deep ocean floor to the intertidal, with a current focus on consequences of both anthropogenic activities  and climate change.

This often includes  the development of new research technologies, and one focus of ongoing work is the development of a pressurised coring, incubation and cultivation system for the study of biogeochemical processes and piezophile  microorganisms from the deep seafloor under varying environmental conditions (pH, T, O2 etc).

Sea ice is a unique feature of polar marine ecosystems and the fact that small temperature differences can have large effects on the extent and thickness of this sea ice makes polar marine ecosystems particularly sensitive to climate change.  The group’s  work on climate change impacts on benthic ecosystem functioning is therefore centred in the Canadian High Arctic where change is particularly rapid.

But we also work closer to home: Aberdeen is often referred to as the ‘oil capital of Europe’, and with hydrocarbon extraction now occurring down to 1100 m in the Faroe Shetland Channel, a need arises to understand the consequences of accidental releases in Scottish deep water environments in order to improve monitoring and optimize response measures after a spill. Several ongoing projects therefore investigate the rates and pathways of hydrocarbon degradation in Scottish Waters, as well as the microorganisms involved.

Benthic ecosystems such as deep water sponge grounds and cold water coral reefs are oasis of biodiversity, but particularly vulnerable to anthropogenic disturbance. Understanding the functional role of sponges in these unique ecosystems is another focus of our work.  

In many cases, stable isotope tracing experiments, often carried out in situ at the deep-sea floor,  help us track the pathway of organic matter, in particular C and N,  through the benthic community and thus understand the spatial and temporal dynamics of biological and geochemical transformations of matter in benthic and benthopelagic foodwebs.

Chamber Lander

Fig. 1: Benthic chamber lander being deployed in the Eastern Mediterranean

In many cases, stable isotope labelling helps us track the pathway of organic matter (e. g. the fate of phytodetritus freshly deposited at the deep-sea floor) through the benthic community (Fig. 2).

Click here for Fig. 2: Processing of organic carbon by the abyssal benthic community of the Porcupine Abyssal Plain in the North-East Atlantic (4800m; from Witte et al. 2003)  

Research Grants

Using the intrinsic recovery capabilities of deep-sea and polar ecosystems to reduce the impact of accidental oil release. NERC Oil and Gas DTP. PI Witte, 2014-2018

Increasing oil spill preparedness for Scottish deep waters  - the role of sediments in a deep water oil spill. MarCRF. PI Witte with A. Gallego and J. Anderson. 2014-2018

Fate and flow of oil carbon in the marine food web – towards efficient monitoring of oil contamination. NERC  2014- 2018.  PI Witte

The natural capacity for oil degradation of marine environments.   NERC PI Witte with J. Anderson and E. Gontikaki. £98,871, 2013-2015.

ArcDeep: Deep-sea ecosystem functioning in a changing climate: consequences of changing sea-ice cover for Arctic benthic ecosystems . NERC standard grant proposal; PI Witte, with F. Kuepper. £508,490, Appr. 2013 – 2016

MAC-EXP: A pressurised coring, experimentation and cultivation system for deep-sea sedimentary ecosystems. NERC Technology-led standard grant.2012-2014. Lead: Witte (Aberdeen), with Parkes, (Cardiff). Awarded. £552000. 2013- 2016.

PharmaSea: Planet Ocean – Streamlining the Marine Biodiscovery Pipeline.  EC FP7-KBBE-2012-6(PI: M Jaspers. Total volume 10 Mio €. Aberdeen: € 725000. 2012- 2016

"The role of micronutrients in deep-sea carbon cycling".  The Leverhulme Trust, 2007 -2010

Bacterial Diversity and Carbon Turnover at the Abyssal Seafloor –proposal to apply 454-based tag sequencing technology to deep-sea sediments. Keck foundation – 2008/ 2009.

"Rates and pathways of carbon cycling at the abyssal sea floor: a long-term, in situ experimental study". NERC, 2007-2010

HERMIONE –– Hotspot Ecosystem Research at Continental Margins; April 2009- September  2012.

Carnegie Trust – Development of Scottish resources for seafloor biogeochemical process studies. August 2008 – July 2010. £29800

"Nutrient regeneration in North Sea coastal sediments". FRF, 2006-2009

"Carbon turnover and trophic relationships in theabyssal Pacific", NERC-LSMSF, 2007/08

COBO - Towards a Coastal Ocan Benthic Observatory  (EC) 2004 - 2007


Teaching Responsibilities

SX1015 The Oceans and Society in a changing environment. 6th century course. Course coordinator and coordiantor theme 1.

BI 1006 BUGS (Biology for Undergraduates) tutor Marine Biology

BI39Z1 Marine Ecology Florida field course

ZO4542 Marine Benthic Ecology

BI4517, BI4017 SBS Honours Essay

BI4016 SBS Honours Project


Further Info

Group Members

Dr. Evina Gontikaki

Dr. Solveig Bourgeois

Dr. Robert Ferguson

Dr. Keith Jackson

Dr. Georgios Kazanidis

Anni Makela, PhD student

Lloyd Potts, PhD student

Luis Peres, PhD student

Amy Bode, PhD student

JessicA Jones, PhD student

Ibrahim Benamer, PhD student

Selected Publications


JobstvogtN, HanleyN, Hynes S, Kenter J & Witte U (2013). Twenty Thousand Sterling Under the Sea: Estimating the value of protecting deep-sea biodiversity. Ecological Economics 97 (2014) 10–19

JeffreysRM,  BurkeC,  JamiesonAJ, NarayanaswamiBE,  RuhlHA, Smith KLJr and WitteU (2013). Feeding preferences of abyssal macrofauna inferred from in situ pulse chase experiments. Accepted.  PLoS ONE 8(11): e80510. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080510

Gontikaki E, Thornton B, Huvenne VIA, Witte U (2013). Negative Priming Effect on Organic Matter Mineralisation in NE Atlantic Slope Sediments. PloS ONE 8(6): e67722. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0067722

Serpetti N, Gontikaki E, Narayanaswamy  BE and Witte U. Macrofaunal community inside and outside of the Darwin Mounds Special Area of Conservation, NE Atlantic. (2013) Biogeosciences 10, 3705–3714, 2013; doi:10.5194/bg-10-3705-2013

HunterWR,  JamiesonA, HuvenneVAI; WitteU (2013). Benthic macrofaunal and bacterial responses to marine and terrigenous organic matter sedimentation in the Whittard Canyon, NE Atlantic. Biogeosciences 10: 67-80. doi:10.5194/bg-10-67-2013

Zetsche EM, Bulling MT, Witte U  (2012) Permeability of intertidal sandflats: Impact of temporal variability on sediment metabolism. Accepted, Cont. Shelf Research. DOI 10.1016/j.csr.2012.04.020

Hunter W, Veuger B, Witte U (2012) Competition by metazoans and retention of labile organic matter regulate heterotrophic bacterial activity in oxygen minimum zone sediments. ISME Journal. 2012. 1-12.

Mayor DJ, Thornton B, Hay S, Zuur AF, Nichol WG, McWilliam JM, Witte U , (2012) Resource quality affects carbon cycling in deep-sea sediments. The ISME Journal (2012), 1–9

Hunter WR, Levin L, Kitazato, H. Witte U (2012). Macrobenthic assemblage structure and organismal stoichiometry control faunal uptake of phytodetritus in OMZ sediments. Biogeosciences 9, 993–1006, 2012

Serpetti, N., Heath, M., Rose, M.., Witte, U. (2012). "Mapping organic matter in seabed sediments off the north-east coast of Scotland from acoustic reflectance data off the north-east coast of Scotland, UK.". 680:265–284. DOI 10.1007/s10750-011-0937-4

ZetscheEM, PatersonD, LumsdonDG , Witte U (2011). Temporal variation in the sediment permeability of an intertidal sandflat . MEPS 449: 49-63

de Beer, D., Sauter, E., Niemann, H., Witte, U., Schlüter, M.Boetius, A. (2006): In situ fluxes and zonation of microbial activity in surface sediments of the Håkon Mosby Mud Volcano. Limnol & Oceanogr. 51 (3), 1315 - 1331

Bühring, S. I., Lampadariou, N., Moodley, L., Tselepides, T., Witte, U. (2006). Benthic microbial and whole-community responses to different amounts of 13C-enriched algae: In situ experiments in the deep Cretan Sea (Eastern Mediterranean). Limnol. & Oceanogr. 51:157-165

Bühring, S. I., Ehrenhauß, S., Kamp, A., Witte, U. (2006) Enhanced benthic activity in sandy sublittoral sediments: evidence from 13C-tracer experiments. Mar Biol Res. 2: 120-129

Kamp A., Witte U. (2005) Processing of 13C-labelled phytoplankton in a fine-grained sandy shelf sediment (North Sea): Relative importance of different macrofauna species. Mar Ecol Prog Ser. 297: 61-70

Janssen F., Huettel, M., Witte, U. 2005. Pore-water advection and solute fluxes in permeable marine sediments (I): Calibration and performance of the novel benthic chamber system "Sandy". Limnol. Oceanogr. 50 (3): 768-778

Janssen F., Huettel, M., Witte, U. 2005. Pore-water advection and solute fluxes in permeable marine sediments (II): Benthic respiration at three sandy sites with different permeabilities. Limnol. Oceanogr. 50 (3): 779-792

Tengberg A., U. Andersson, P. Hall, B. Linden, O. Styrenius, G. Boland, F. De Bovee, B. Carlsson, S. Ceradini, A. Devol, G. Duineveld, J. U. Friemann, R. Glud, A. Khripounoff, J. Leather, P. Linke, L. Lund-Hansen, G. Rowe, P. Santschi, P. De Wilde and U. Witte (2005). Intercalibration of benthic flux chambers II: Hydrodynamic characterization and flux comparisons of 14 different designs. (Marine Chemistry 94: 147-173)

Bühring, S., Elvert, M., Witte, U. (2005) The microbial community structure of different permeable sandy sediments characterised by the investigation of bacterial fatty acids and fluorescence in situ hybridisation. Environmental Microbiology 7 (2): 281-293

Ehrenhauß S., Witte, U. , Janßen, F.,. Hüttel, M., (2004). Decomposition of diatoms and nutrient dynamics in permeable North Sea sediments. Cont. Shelf Research 24: 721-737

Ehrenhauß, S, U. Witte, S. Bühring, M. Hüttel (2004): Effect of advective pore water transport on distribution and degradation of diatoms in permeable North Sea sediments. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 271: 99-111

U. Witte, F. Wenzhöfer, S. Sommer, A. Boetius, P. Heinz, N. Aberle, M. Sand,  A.Cremer, W.-R. Abraham, B. B. Jørgensen,  O. Pfannkuche (2003).  In situ experimental evidence of the fate of a phytodetritus pulse at the abyssal sea floor. Nature, 424: 763-766

U. Witte, N.Aberle, M. Sand, F. Wenzhöfer. Rapid response of a deep-sea benthic community to POM enrichment: an in situ experimental study (2003). Mar Ecol Prog Ser 251: 27-36

N. Aberle, U. Witte: Deep-sea macrofauna exposed to a simulated sedimentation event in the abyssal NE Atlantic: in situ pulse chase experiments using 13C labeled phytodetritus (2003). Mar Ecol Prog Ser 251: 37-47

Viollier,  E.,  C. Rabouille, S. E. Apitz, E. Breuer, G. Chaillou, K. Dedieu, Y. Furakawa, C. Grenz, P. Hall, F. Janssen, J. L. Morford, J.-C. Poggiale, S. Roberts, T. Shimmield, M. Taillefert, A. Tengberg, F. Wenzhofer, U. Witte (2003): In situ assessment of benthic biogeochemistry: State of the art technologies and guidelines for the future. J. exp. mar. Biol. Ecol.  285-286: 5-31

Treude, T., Janssen, F., Queisser, W., Witte, U. (2002) Respiration and metabolic activity of deep-sea amphipods. Deep-Sea Res. I 49: 1281-1289

Piepenburg, D., Brandt, A., von Juterzenka, K., Mayer, M., Schnack, K., Seiler, D., Witte, U., Spindler, M. (2001): Patterns and determinants of the distribution and structure of benthic faunal assemblages in the northern North Atlantic. In: Schäfer, P., Ritzrau, W., Schlüter, M., Thiede, J. (eds): The Northern North Atlantic. A changing Environment. Pp179-198 Springer, Berlin

Witte, U. and Pfannkuche, O. (2000) High rates of benthic carbon remineralisation in the deep Arabian Sea. Deep-Sea Res. II 47 (14): 2785-2804

Witte, U. (2000) Vertical distribution of macrofauna within the sediment at four sites with contrasting food supply in the deep Arabian Sea. Deep-Sea Res. II 47 (14): 2979-2997

Janßen, F., Treude, T., Witte, U. (2000) Scavenger communities of the deep Arabian Sea. Deep-Sea Res. II 47 (14): 2999-3026

Turnewitsch, R., Witte, U. and Graf, G. (2000) Bioturbation in the abyssal Arabian Sea: influence of fauna and food supply. Deep-Sea Res. II 47 (14): 2877-2911

Boetius, A., Ravenschlag, K.,  Schubert, C., Rickert, D., Widdel, F., Gieseke, A., Amann, R., Jørgensen, B. B., Witte, U., Pfannkuche, O.(2000). A marine microbial consortium apparently mediating anaerobic oxidation of methane". Nature 407: 623-626



update | about Staff Pages