Reading Time: 4 minutesEcology is the study of environmental systems, or as it is sometimes called, the economy of nature. “Environment” usually means relating to the natural, versus human-made world; the “systems” means that ecology is, by its very nature, not interested in just the components of nature individually but especially in how the parts interact.
The subject matter of ecology is normally divided into following broad categories:
- Physiological ecology– It deals with the response of single species to environmental conditions such as temperature or light.
- Population ecology– It usually focuses on the abundance and distribution of individual species and the factors that cause such distribution;
- Community ecology– It deals with the number of species found at a given location and their interactions; and
- Ecosystems ecology– deals with the structure and function of the entire suite of microbes, plants, and animals, and their abiotic environment, and how the parts interact to generate the whole. This branch often focuses on the energy and nutrient flows of ecosystems, and when this approach is combined with computer analysis and simulation we often call it systems ecology.
- Evolutionary ecology– It operates at the physiological or population level, is a rich and dynamic area of ecology focusing on attempting to understand how natural selection developed the structure and function of the organisms and ecosystems at any of these levels.
It is usually considered from the perspective of the specific geographic environment that is being studied a moment: tropical rain forest, temperate grassland, arctic tundra, benthic marine, the entire biosphere, and so on. The subject matter of ecology is the entire natural world, including both the living and the non-living parts.
Biogeography focuses on the observed distribution of plants and animals and the reasons behind it. More recently ecology has included increasingly the human-dominated world of agriculture, grazing lands for domestic animals, cities, and even industrial parks.
Industrial ecology is a discipline that has recently been developed, especially in Europe, where the objective is to follow the energy and material use throughout the process of, e.g., making an automobile with the objective of attempting to improve the material and energy efficiency of manufacturing. For any of these levels or approaches there are some scientists that focus on theoretical ecology, which attempts to derive or apply theoretical or sometimes mathematical reasons and generalities for what is observed in nature, and empirical ecology, which is concerned principally with measurement. Applied ecology takes what is found from one or both of these approaches and uses it to protect or manage nature in some way. Related to this discipline is conservation biology. Plant, animal, and microbial ecology have obvious foci.
Reasons to study ecology
There are usually four basic reasons given to study and as to why we might want to understand it:
- First, since all of us live to some degree in a natural or at least partly natural ecosystem, then considerable pleasure can be derived by studying the environment around us. Just as one might learn to appreciate art better through an art history course so too might one appreciate more the nature around us with a better understanding.
- Second, human economies are in large part based on the exploitation and management of nature. Applied ecology is used every day in forestry, fisheries, range management, agriculture, and so on to provide us with the food and fiber we need.
- Third, human societies can often be understood very clearly from ecological perspectives as we study, for example, the population dynamics (demography) of our own species, the food and fossil energy flowing through our society.
- Fourth, humans appear to be changing aspects of the global environment in many ways.
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It can be very useful to help us understand what these changes are, what the implications might be for various ecosystems, and how we might intervene in either human economies or in nature to try to mitigate or otherwise alter these changes. There are many professional ecologists, who believe that these apparent changes from human activities have the potential to generate enormous harm to both natural ecosystems and human economies. Understanding, predicting and adapting to these issues could be the most important of all possible issue for humans to deal with.