By the end of this section, you will be able to do the following:
- Define ecology and the four basic levels of ecological research
- Describe examples of the ways in which ecology requires the integration of different scientific disciplines
- Distinguish between abiotic and biotic components of the environment
- Recognize the relationship between abiotic and biotic components of the environment
Ecology is the study of the interactions of living organisms with their environment. One core goal of ecology is to understand the distribution and abundance of living things in the physical environment. Attainment of this goal requires the integration of scientific disciplines inside and outside of biology, such as mathematics, statistics, biochemistry, molecular biology, physiology, evolution, biodiversity, geology, and climatology.
Climate change can alter where organisms live, which can sometimes directly affect human health. Watch the PBS video “Feeling the Effects of Climate Change” in which researchers discover a pathogenic organism living far outside of its normal range.
Levels of Ecological Study
When a discipline such as biology is studied, it is often helpful to subdivide it into smaller, related areas. For instance, cell biologists interested in cell signaling need to understand the chemistry of the signal molecules (which are usually proteins) as well as the result of cell signaling. Ecologists interested in the factors that influence the survival of an endangered species might use mathematical models to predict how current conservation efforts affect endangered organisms.
To produce a sound set of management options, a conservation biologist needs to collect accurate data, including current population size, factors affecting reproduction (like physiology and behavior), habitat requirements (such as plants and soils), and potential human influences on the endangered population and its habitat (which might be derived through studies in sociology and urban ecology). Within the discipline of ecology, researchers work at four general levels, which sometimes overlap. These levels are organism, population, community, and ecosystem (Figure 44.2).
Researchers studying ecology at the organismal level are interested in the adaptations that enable individuals to live in specific habitats. These adaptations can be morphological, physiological, and behavioral. For instance, the Karner blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) (Figure 44.3) is considered a specialist because the females only oviposit (that is, lay eggs) on wild lupine (Lupinus perennis). This specific requirement and adaptation means that the Karner blue butterfly is completely dependent on the presence of wild lupine plants for its survival.
After hatching, the (first instar) caterpillars emerge and spend four to six weeks feeding solely on wild lupine (Figure 44.4). The caterpillars pupate as a chrysalis to undergo the final stage of metamorphosis and emerge as butterflies after about four weeks. The adult butterflies feed on the nectar of flowers of wild lupine and other plant species, such as milkweeds. Generally there are two broods of the Karner blue each year.
A researcher interested in studying Karner blue butterflies at the organismal level might, in addition to asking questions about egg laying requirements, ask questions about the butterflies’ preferred thoracic flight temperature (a physiological question), or the behavior of the caterpillars when they are at different larval stages (a behavioral question).
A population is a group of interbreeding organisms that are members of the same species living in the same area at the same time. (Organisms that are all members of the same species are called conspecifics.) A population is identified, in part, by where it lives, and its area of population may have natural or artificial boundaries. Natural boundaries might be rivers, mountains, or deserts, while artificial boundaries may be mowed grass, manmade structures, or roads. The study of population ecology focuses on the number of individuals in an area and how and why population size changes over time.
For example, population ecologists are particularly interested in counting the Karner blue butterfly because it is classified as a federally endangered species. However, the distribution and density of this species is highly influenced by the distribution and abundance of wild lupine, and the biophysical environment around it. Researchers might ask questions about the factors leading to the decline of wild lupine and how these affect Karner blue butterflies. For example, ecologists know that wild lupine thrives in open areas where trees and shrubs are largely absent. In natural settings, intermittent wildfires regularly remove trees and shrubs, helping to maintain the open areas that wild lupine requires. Mathematical models can be used to understand how wildfire suppression by humans has led to the decline of this important plant for the Karner blue butterfly.
A biological community consists of the different species within an area, typically a three-dimensional space, and the interactions within and among these species. Community ecologists are interested in the processes driving these interactions and their consequences. Questions about conspecific interactions often focus on competition among members of the same species for a limited resource. Ecologists also study interactions between various species; members of different species are called heterospecifics. Examples of heterospecific interactions include predation, parasitism, herbivory, competition, and pollination. These interactions can have regulating effects on population sizes and can impact ecological and evolutionary processes affecting diversity.
For example, Karner blue butterfly larvae form mutualistic relationships with ants (especially Formica spp). Mutualism is a form of long-term relationship that has coevolved between two species and from which each species benefits. For mutualism to exist between individual organisms, each species must receive some benefit from the other as a consequence of the relationship. Researchers have shown that there is an increase in survival when ants protect Karner blue butterfly larvae (caterpillars) from predaceous insects and spiders, an act known as “tending.” This might be because the larvae spend less time in each life stage when tended by ants, which provides an advantage for the larvae. Meanwhile, to attract the ants, the Karner blue butterfly larvae secrete ant-like pheromones and a carbohydrate-rich substance that is an important energy source for the ants. Both the Karner blue larvae and the ants benefit from their interaction, although the species of attendant ants may be partially opportunistic and vary over the range of the butterfly.
Ecosystem ecology is an extension of organismal, population, and community ecology. The ecosystem is composed of all the biotic components (living things) in an area along with the abiotic components (nonliving things) of that area. Some of the abiotic components include air, water, and soil. Ecosystem biologists ask questions about how nutrients and energy are stored and how they move among organisms and through the surrounding atmosphere, soil, and water.
The Karner blue butterflies and the wild lupine live in an oak-pine barren habitat. This habitat is characterized by natural disturbance and nutrient-poor soils that are low in nitrogen. The availability of nutrients is an important factor in the distribution of the plants that live in this habitat. Researchers interested in ecosystem ecology could ask questions about the importance of limited resources and the movement of resources, such as nutrients, though the biotic and abiotic portions of the ecosystem.
A career in ecology contributes to many facets of human society. Understanding ecological issues can help society meet the basic human needs of food, shelter, and health care. Ecologists can conduct their research in the laboratory and outside in natural environments (Figure 44.5). These natural environments can be as close to home as the stream running through your campus or as far away as the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Ecologists manage natural resources such as white-tailed deer populations (Odocoileus virginianus) for hunting or aspen (Populus spp.) timber stands for paper production. Ecologists also work as educators who teach children and adults at various institutions including universities, high schools, museums, and nature centers. Ecologists may also work in advisory positions assisting local, state, and federal policymakers to develop laws that are ecologically sound, or they may develop those policies and legislation themselves. To become an ecologist requires at least an undergraduate degree, usually in a natural science. The undergraduate degree is often followed by specialized training or an advanced degree, depending on the area of ecology selected. Ecologists should also have a broad background in the physical sciences, as well as a solid foundation in mathematics and statistics.
Visit this site to see Stephen Wing, a marine ecologist from the University of Otago, discuss the role of an ecologist and the types of issues ecologists explore.