ECOLOGY (Part 1 of 3)   Leave a comment

DEFINITION:1 a) the branch of biology that deals with the relations between living organisms and their environment b) the complex of relations between a specific organism and its environment 2 Sociology the study of the relationship and adjustment of human groups to their geographical and social environments.

1869: Birth of ecology. Most people are unaware that the subdivision of biology called ecology is over a century old. Over the course of its development, ecology has emerged as one of the most significant and studied aspects of biology. Ecology refers to the overall interrelated system of nature and the interdependence of all living things.

The word ecology has been popularized more recently because of the many environmental concerns that have been raised since the 1970s. But as a word, ecology was coined in about 1869 by a German zoologist named Ernst Haeckel. A researcher in evolution and a strong supporter of Charles Darwins theories, Haeckel spent most of his career teaching at the University of Jena.

The study of ecology dates back to the ancient Greek philosophers. An associate of Aristotle named Theophrastus first described the relationships between organisms and their environment. Today the field of ecology has expanded beyond narrow biological studies to include environmental pollution, population growth, and food supplies.

The science that deals with the ways in which plants and animals depend upon one another and upon the physical settings in which they live is called ecology. Ecologists investigate the interactions of organisms in various kinds of environments. In this way they learn how nature establishes orderly patterns among a great variety of living things. The word ecology was coined in 1869. It comes from the Greek oikos, which means “household.” Economics is derived from the same word. However, economics deals with human “housekeeping,” while ecology concerns the “housekeeping” of nature.

Interdependence in Nature

Ecology emphasizes the dependence of every form of life on other living things and on the natural resources in its environment, such as air, soil, and water. Before there was a science of ecology, the great English biologist Charles Darwin noted this interdependence when he wrote: “It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and so dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”

Ecology shows that people cannot regard nature as separate and detached something to look at on a visit to a forest preserve or a drive through the country. Any changes made in the environment affect all the organisms in it. When vehicles and factories hurl pollutants into the air, animals and plants as well as humans themselves are harmed. The water they foul with wastes and silt threatens remote streams and lakes. Even ocean fisheries may experience reduced catches because of pollution.

The Balance of Nature

Each kind of life is suited to the physical conditions of its habitat the type of soil, the amount of moisture and light, the quality of air, the annual variations in temperature. Each survives because it can hold its own with its neighbours However, the continued existence of the whole group, or life community, involves a shifting balance among its members, a “dynamic equilibrium.”

Natural balances are disrupted when crops are planted, since ordinarily the crops are not native to the areas in which they are grown. Such disturbances of natural balances make it necessary for man to impose artificial balances that will maintain or increase crop production. For the effective manipulation of these new equilibriums, information on nature’s checks and balances is absolutely essential, and often only a specialist is able to provide it. For example, if a farmer were told that he could increase the red clover in his pasture with the help of domestic cats, he might ridicule the suggestion. Yet the relationship between cats and red clover has been clearly established. Cats kill field mice, thus preventing them from destroying the nests and larvae of bumblebees. As a result, more bumblebees are available to pollinate clover blossoms. The more thoroughly the blossoms are pollinated, the more seed will be produced and the richer the clover crop will be. This cat-mouse-bee-clover relationship is typical of the cause-and-effect chains that ecologists study.

The Wide Scope of Ecology

Long before a separate science of ecology arose, men in all sorts of occupations were guided by what are now regarded as ecological considerations. The primitive hunter who knew that deer had to stop at a salt lick for salt was a practical ecologist. So too was the early fisherman who realized that gulls hovering over the water marked the position of a school of fish. In the absence of calendars, men used ecological facts to guide their seasonal endeavours They planted corn when oak leaves were the size of a squirrel’s ear. They regarded the noise of geese flying south as a warning to prepare for winter.

Natural history, the study of nature in general; forerunner of the sciences of biology and ecology.

Until about 1850, the scientific study of such phenomena was called natural history, and the student of the great outdoors was called a naturalist. Afterwards, natural history became subdivided into special fields, such as geology, zoology, and botany, and the naturalist moved indoors. There he performed laboratory work with the aid of scientific equipment.

While the scientists were at work in their laboratories, other men were continuing to cope with living things in their natural settings on timber lands, on range lands, on crop lands, in streams and seas. Although these men often needed help, many of their problems could not be solved in the laboratory.

The forester, for example, wanted to know why trees do not thrive on the prairie, the desert, and the mountaintop. The rancher wanted to know how to manage his pastures so that his cattle would flourish, and how such creatures as coyotes, hawks, rabbits, gophers, and grasshoppers would affect his efforts.

As for the farmer, almost every part of his work posed problems for which scientific answers were needed. The game manager came to realize that his duties entailed much more than the regulation of hunting. To preserve the animals for which he was responsible, he had to make sure they had the right kinds of food in all seasons, suitable places to live and raise their young, and appropriate cover.

The fisherman learned that most aquatic life fares poorly in muddy and polluted waters. He became interested in land management and waste disposal when he discovered that the silt he found so troublesome came from rural areas where timber, range land, and crop land were mishandled and that the waters he fished were polluted by urban wastes. The ocean fisherman wanted to know why fish were abundant in one place and scarce in another. He needed information on the breeding habits of his catches and of the tiny animals and plants upon which they fed.

These are all ecological problems. To solve them the ecologist must understand biology the science of living things including botany and zoology. He must also understand the sciences that deal with weather, climate, rocks, earth, soil, and water.

An ecologist is concerned with both the past and the future. The present and potential condition of a field, stream, or forest cannot be understood without knowing its earlier history. For example, great stretches of light-green aspen trees may grow in parts of the Rocky Mountains while nearby slopes are covered with dark-green fir and spruce trees. This indicates that a forest fire once destroyed stands of evergreens. Aspens are the first trees capable of growing on the fire-scarred land. After about 40 years spruce and fir seeds begin to germinate in the shade of the aspens. In the course of time the evergreens can be expected to regain their lost territory.


Ecology is a relatively young science. Its laws are still being developed. Nevertheless, some of its principles have already won wide acceptance.

The Special Environmental Needs of Living Things

One of these principles can be stated as follows: life patterns reflect the patterns of the physical environment. In land communities vegetation patterns are influenced by climate and soil. Climate has a marked effect on the height of dominant native plants. For instance, the humid climate of the Eastern United States supports tall forest trees. Westward from Minnesota and Texas the climate changes from sub humid to semiarid. At first the land has squatty, scattered trees and tall grasses or thickets. As the climate becomes drier, tall-grass prairies dominate. Finally, on the dry plains at the eastern base of the Rockies, short-grass steppe appears.

Rocky Mountains (or Rockies), chain of ranges, along e. side of North American Cordilleras from Mexico to Alaska.

Climates and plant varieties change quickly at the various elevations of mountain range. At very high altitudes in the Rockies, alpine range lands exist above the timberline. Here, the climatic factor of cold outweighs that of moisture, and tundra vegetation similar to that of the Arctic regions is nurtured. West of the Rockies, however, in basins between other mountains, the desert scrub vegetation of arid climates prevails. Near the northern Pacific coast may be found lush rain forests typical of extremely humid temperature climates.

Though moisture and temperature determine the overall pattern of a region’s vegetation, unusual soil conditions may promote the growth of un-typical plant species. Thus, even in arid climates cat tails grow near ponds and forests rise along streams or from rocky outcrops where run off water collects in cracks.

Plants and animals flourish only when certain physical conditions are present. In the absence of such conditions, plants and animals cannot survive without artificial help. Domestic plants and animals ordinarily die out within a few generations without the continued protection of man. Of all the forms of life, man seems least bound by environmental limitations. He can create liveable conditions nearly everywhere on the planet by means of fire, shelters, clothing, and tools. Without these aids, man would be as restricted in his choice of habitat as are, for example, such species as the polar bear, the camel, and the beech tree. However, given his capacity to develop artificial environments, man is able to range not only over the entire Earth but also in the heights of outer space and the depths of the ocean bottom.

Communities of Plants and Animals

Community, in biology, a group of organisms living together in a particular environment.

Closely related to the life patterns principle is the principle of biotic communities. According to this principle, the plants and animals of a given area its biota tend to group themselves into loosely organized units known as communities. The community is the natural home of each member-species.

This means that certain types of plants and animals live together in readily identified communities. Pronghorn antelope are associated with dry steppe grasslands; moose inhabit northern spruce forests; and such trees as oak and hickory or beech and maple are found together in forests. By contrast, certain living things cat tail and cactus, for example never share the same natural environment.

Large communities in turn contain smaller ones, each with its own characteristic biota. Bison, coyotes, and jack rabbits are part of the grasslands community. Fox squirrels, wood pigeons, and black bears are part of the forest community. By means of computers, ecologists have simulated communities containing various plants and animals. In this way they have been able to determine optimum populations for each of the species in a community.


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