Ed Golson Outdoor Education

Basics of ecology

Ecology is a segment of the science of biology. Biology, in general, is the study of life. There are many different levels of biology. Cell biologists study the small parts of biology: cells, organelles, and organic molecules. Other biologists study larger items within living things: organs, tissues, or entire organisms. Ecologists, however, study the largest parts of life. They start with the study of small groups of organisms all the way up to entire ecosystems. They study how living things interact with each other and with the nonliving parts of their environment. Ecology is a very broad science. Some have said that ecology is the study of how everything relates to everything else.

To get a better understanding of what ecology is, let's start by defining some important terms. First, of course, is organism. An organism is any type of living thing. Plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria are all types of organisms. That was easy. Ecologists rarely study individual organisms. They start by studying groups of populations. Populations are groups of the same type of organism in the same area. Populations might include a herd of buffalo, a flock of geese, or all the students in your school. Ecologists that study populations might study how the number of organisms in the population changes over time, or how the organisms within the population behave and interact with each other.

photograph of doe and babyCommunities consist of all the living things in a specific area. Communities can also be thought of as a group of populations. Scientists that study communities might study how different species of birds compete with each other for food, or how the number of rabbits in an area affects the number of foxes in the area.

Another important term to define is ecosystem. An ecosystem includes all the biotic factors (living things) and the abiotic factors (nonliving features) that are present in an area. Important abiotic factors include light, weather, water, soil nutrients, and elevation. These things aren't living, but they can have huge impacts on life in the area. Biotic factors can include all the living things in an area, from large animals like bears and turtles, down to the smallest fungi and bacteria in the soil. Ecosystems can be any size. All it takes is an area that contains all the features necessary for life. An ecosystem can be a huge forest, or it could be a small aquarium in your room. An ecologist that studies an ecosystem might research how pollution affects the fish in a pond or how a change in the weather affects where birds build their nests.

Ecology is important because it helps us to understand the world around us. By knowing how groups of organisms interact with each other, we have a better understanding of how to protect the Earth and to ensure that it is filled with all sorts of living things for a long time to come.

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