Ecology is the study of the relationship of plants and animals with their physical and biological environment. The physical environment includes light and heat or solar radiation, moisture, wind, oxygen, carbon dioxide, nutrients in soil, water, and atmosphere. The biological environment includes organisms of the same kind as well as other plants and animals.

Because of the diverse approaches required to study organisms in their environment, ecology draws upon such fields as climatology, hydrology, oceanography, physics, chemistry, geology, and soil analysis. To study the relationships between organisms, ecology also involves such disparate sciences as animal behavior, taxonomy, physiology, and mathematics.

An increased public awareness of environmental problems has made ecology a common but often misused word. It is confused with environmental programs and environmental science. Although the field is a distinct scientific discipline, ecology does indeed contribute to the study and understanding of environmental problems.

The term "ecology" was introduced by the German biologist Ernst Heinrich Haeckel in 1866; it is derived from the Greek "oikos" ("household"), sharing the same root word as "economics". Thus, the term implies the study of the economy of nature. Modern ecology, in part, began with Charles Darwin. In developing his theory of evolution, Darwin stressed the adaptation of organisms to their environment through natural selection. Also making important contributions were plant geographers, such as Alexander von Humboldt, who were deeply interested in the "how" and "why" of vegetation distribution around the world.

The thin mantle of life that covers the earth is called the biosphere. Several approaches are used to classify its regions.


The broad units of vegetation are called "plant formations" by European ecologists and "biomes" by North American ecologists. The major difference between the two terms is that "biomes" include associated animal life. Major biomes, however, go by the name of the dominant forms of plant life.

Influenced by latitude, elevation, and associated moisture and temperature regimes, terrestrial biomes vary geographically from the tropics through the arctic and include various types of forest, grassland, shrub land, and desert. These biomes also include their associated freshwater communities: streams, lakes, ponds, and wetlands.

Marine environments, also considered biomes by some ecologists, comprise the open ocean, littoral (shallow water) regions, benthic (bottom) regions, rocky shores, sandy shores, estuaries, and associated tidal marshes.


A more useful way of looking at the terrestrial and aquatic landscapes is to view them as ecosystems, a word coined in 1935 by the British plant ecologist Sir Arthur George Tansley to stress the concept of each locale or habitat as an integrated whole. A system is a collection of interdependent parts that function as a unit and involve inputs and outputs. The major parts of an ecosystem are the producers (green plants), the consumers (herbivores and carnivores), the decomposers (fungi and bacteria), and the nonliving, or abiotic, components, consisting of dead organic matter and nutrients in the soil and water. Inputs into the ecosystem are solar energy, water, oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and other elements and compounds. Outputs from the ecosystem include water, oxygen, carbon dioxide, nutrient losses, and the heat released in cellular respiration, or heat of respiration. The major driving force is solar energy.


Ecosystems function with energy flowing in one direction from the sun, and through nutrients, which are continuously recycled. Light energy is used by plants, which, by the process of photosynthesis, convert it to chemical energy in the form of carbohydrates and other carbon compounds. This energy is then transferred through the ecosystem by a series of steps that involve eating and being eaten, or what is called a food web.

Each step in the transfer of energy involves several trophic, or feeding, levels: plants, herbivores (plant eaters), two or three levels of carnivores (meat eaters), and decomposers. Only a fraction of the energy fixed by plants follows this pathway, known as the grazing food web. Plant and animal matter not used in the grazing food chain, such as fallen leaves, twigs, roots, tree trunks, and the dead bodies of animals, support the decomposer food web. Bacteria, fungi, and animals that feed on dead material become the energy source for higher trophic levels that tie into the grazing food web. In this way, nature makes maximum use of energy originally fixed by plants.

The number of trophic levels is limited in both types of food webs, because at each transfer a great deal of energy is lost (such as heat of respiration) and is no longer usable or transferable to the next trophic level. Thus, each trophic level contains less energy than the trophic level supporting it. For this reason, as an example, deer or caribou (herbivores) are more abundant than wolves (carnivores).

Energy flow fuels the biogeochemical, or nutrient, cycles. The cycling of nutrients begins with their release from organic matter by weathering and decomposition in a form that can be picked up by plants. Plants incorporate nutrients available in soil and water and store them in their tissues. The nutrients are transferred from one trophic level to another through the food web. Because most plants and animals go uneaten, nutrients contained in their tissues, after passing through the decomposer food web, are ultimately released by bacterial and fungal decomposition, a process that reduces complex organic compounds into simple inorganic compounds available for reuse by plants.


Within an ecosystem, nutrients are cycled internally. But there are leakages or outputs, and these must be balanced by inputs, or the ecosystem will fail to function. Nutrient inputs to the system come from weathering of rocks, from windblown dust, and from precipitation, which can carry material great distances. Varying quantities of nutrients are carried from terrestrial ecosystems by the movement of water and deposited in aquatic ecosystems and associated lowlands. Erosion and the harvesting of timber and crops remove considerable quantities of nutrients that must be replaced. The failure to do so results in an impoverishment of the ecosystem.

This is why agricultural lands must be fertilized.

If inputs of any nutrient greatly exceed outputs, the nutrient cycle in the ecosystem becomes stressed or overloaded, resulting in pollution. Pollution can be considered an input of nutrients exceeding the capability of the ecosystem to process them. Nutrients eroded and leached from agricultural lands, along with sewage and industrial wastes accumulated from urban areas, all drain into streams, rivers, lakes, and estuaries. These pollutants destroy plants and animals that cannot tolerate their presence or the changed environmental conditions caused by them; at the same time, they favor a few organisms more tolerant to changed conditions. Thus, precipitation filled with sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen from industrial areas converts to weak sulfuric and nitric acids, known as acid rain, and falls on large areas of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. This upsets acidbase relations in some ecosystems, killing fish and aquatic invertebrates, and increasing soil acidity, which reduces forest growth in northern and other ecosystems that lack limestone to neutralize the acid.


The functional units of an ecosystem are the populations of organisms through which energy and nutrients move. A population is a group of interbreeding organisms of the same kind living in the same place at the same time. Groups of populations within an ecosystem interact in various ways. These interdependent populations of plants and animals make up the community, which encompasses the biotic portion of the ecosystem.


The community has certain attributes, among them dominance and species diversity. Dominance results when one or several species control the environmental conditions that influence associated species. In a forest, for example, the dominant species may be one or more species of trees, such as oak or spruce; in a marine community, the dominant organisms frequently are animals such as mussels or oysters. Dominance can influence diversity of species in a community because diversity involves not only the number of species in a community, but also how numbers of individual species are apportioned.

The physical nature of a community is evidenced by layering, or stratification. In terrestrial communities, stratification is influenced by the growth form of the plants. Simple communities such as grasslands, with little vertical stratification, usually consist of two layers, the ground layer and the herbaceous layer. A forest has up to six layers: ground, herbaceous, low shrub, low tree and high shrub, lower canopy, and upper canopy. These strata influence the physical environment and diversity of habitats for wildlife. Vertical stratification of life in aquatic communities, by contrast, is influenced mostly by physical conditions: depth, light, temperature, pressure, salinity, oxygen, and carbon dioxide.


The community provides the habitat – the place where particular plants or animals live. Within the habitat, organisms occupy different niches.

A niche is the functional role of a species in a community – that is, its occupation, or how it earns its living. For example, the scarlet tanager lives in a deciduous forest habitat. Its niche, in part, is gleaning insects from the canopy foliage. The more a community is stratified, the more finely the habitat is divided into additional niches.

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