Ecology is the scientific discipline that brings together facets of other disciplines. It is the study of organisms and their environment and the relationship between the two. In this it overlaps into disciplines such as environmental science and biology among others. R. J. Putman and S. D. Wratten in their book “Principles of Ecology” note that ecology as a term has taken on a number of meanings. “Human ecology” is sometimes used as a political term to describe an individual’s relationship to a society. As the earth is a varied places of numerous and changing environments that hosts millions of diverse and evolving species, it is a field that always has much to learn. This essay endeavors to explore the basic tenets or principles of ecology.
Ecology is closely related to environmental studies. There are plenty of diversity even within the discipline. From statistical ecologists, marine ecologists, environmental ecologists, and many other subjects share or borrow terms with ecology. What is interesting is what differentiates them as their own paths of study. It is a matter of focus. Ecology is concerned with a number of factors that environmental studies does not. Ecologists put their focus on studying (general) a particular population within a particular area, and environmental studies is more concerned with the area. Further, this will be elaborated with more detail.
Putman and Wratten’s work does a good job of providing uniform, textbook definitions within the science of Ecology. According to them there are five basic things that an Ecologist concerns him/herself with. These are “1) explaining different life processes and understanding these lead to adaption to an environment. 2) Distribution of organism, 3) the movement of material and energy through living communities 4) the successional development of ecosystems and 5) the abundance and distribution of biodiversity.” (Putman, Wratten, 1984).
“The Environment” is a fluid concept. Broadly speaking it can mean a very large area. It could also be an area as small as beneath a stone. Generally geographical areas are differentiated through a set of “physicochemical characteristics such as soil composition, climate, and mineral deposit in the area. (Putman, Wratten 1984).
The “biosphere” is a way of viewing the earth as one single environment. Or it could be called the sum of all environments. It is not the entire earth, but the parts of the earth that are livable. This includes mountains with bacteria living beneath the snow and warm jets of underwater springs miles below the surface of the ocean where species have found their “niche” and managed to survive despite harsh conditions.
There are two factors to consider when talking about the environment: Abiotic and biotic. Abiotic are non-living components to an environment and biotic is the opposite, the living organisms inhabiting a place. Much work is done on the study of macro and micro environments and their effect upon organisms living in them.
Brian A. Mauer, James H. Brown and Renee D. Rustler have collaborated on research in evolutionary biology with strong ecological connection regarding how a particular macro-environment contributes the evolution of body size in a population. (Mauer, Brown, Rustler, 1990).
Distribution of the organism likewise is an important consideration for any Ecologist studying the patterns of behavior and place within an environment of a species. Ecologists are equally concerned with diversity, or difference between members of a same group, which often times relates to distribution. I,e., members of the same species living remote from other populations tend to develop differently due to their distribution.
Terms that are related to population distribution are population growth, life history and population dynamics. Population growth Population growth can be either positive or negative. Meaning, a population could be increasing (a positive growth) or it could even be decreasing (a negative growth). This is the term that ecologists calculate in order to make predictions about future populations.
A good illustrating example of these terms in action can be achieved by analyzing an ecological study conducted by Gerald S. Wilkinson and Jason M. South, both researchers from The University of Maryland. The study is called “Life history, ecology and longevity in bats.”
The study’s goal was to explain the phenomenon that bats have been observed to live up to three times as long as other similar non-flying mammals. The biological paper looked at a number of ecological factors, “we selected six life history and ecological factors to use in a comparative analysis of longevity among 64 bat species.” (Wilkison, South 2002).
The study looked at five individual life histories for bat that had been known to be outliers in the data and live to thirty years. It compared this against known data. The life histories are not scientific like math is, but they give a good specific example of at least one member of a particular species. It then cross-referenced scientifically the average lifespan of bats that with species of non-flying mammals of similar size in order to have a standard of comparison. Ecological study of these other species provided the study with the numbers with which to run the math.
The third principle as set by Putman and Wratten is “the movement of material and energy through living communities.” Movements of energy throughout an environment are crucial in understanding what conditions species within the environment are subject to. Energy is transferred to an environment in both gradual and dramatic, sometimes catastrophic ways.
A slow natural process that brings energies to an environment is sunlight, which to different degrees touches almost every ecosystem on earth. An exception are certain species of micro organisms who survives of underwater ocean springs. Water, a resource in a community, is also a source of energy at times. If that water, for instance, was falling from a waterfall. There are also wind, fire; or the potential for a fire, amongst others.
Ecological succession, the forth pillar established by Putman and Wratten, They write, “Communities shift and alter in composition even when in equilibrium.” This change, that effects the entire population community and results from the general pattern within the species is known as Ecological Succession.
The final principle of ecology explored in this essay is the abundance and distribution of biodiversity. Abundance relates to amount of species, the density of their distributions and ecologists arrive at conclusions using this and other factors to determine the relative health of a species.
The title of David Hamilton Wright from University of Georgia illustrates how this terminology is used within the discipline. His study, “Correlations between incidence and abundance are expected by chance” explored the relationship between distribution and abundance of species. This illuminates one sub-discipline within ecology, statistical ecology, in which uses math and data gathered by field ecologists and compiles it to make both deductive and inductive conclusions.
Ecology is a growing discipline. Only since the middle part of the 20th century did it gane prominence and then respect as an important branch of biology. The reason for this is not difficult to intuit. As we grow in knowledge and awareness as a species on one planet in a large universe, we realize more that life exists in a delicate balance that has evolved over millions of years. Disrupting this balance creates grave problems for other species and for our own.
The concept of extinction that a species can simply cease to exist has only become understood recently. A great illustration of this is the Dodo bird. Human arrived on an island where they had not learned to fear man, and then the European explorers clubbed them all to death not knowing that this was the only place they existed on the entire planet.
Global Warming becoming a serious issue of the twenty-first century has also brought questions of ecological concern to the table of political debates. Understanding how species change is important in order to understand if changes in the climate are causing disruptions in specie populations.
Given our growing knowledge of biology and realization that the more we learn about the world, environments and species around us the better we can protect ourselves as a species and preserve life on earth likely going to continue to make ecology a growing subject of study for biologists everywhere.
Putman, Rory, and Stephen D. Wratten.Principles of ecology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Print.
Wilkinson, Gerald. "Life history, ecology and longevity in bats." Aging Cell 1 (2002): 124-131. Print.