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 biochemistry, physiology, evolution, biodiversity, molecular biology, geology, and climatology. Some ecological research also applies aspects of chemistry and physics, and it frequently uses mathematical models.
Why study ecology? Perhaps you are interested in learning about the natural world and how living things have adapted to the physical conditions of their environment. Or, perhaps you’re a future physician seeking to understand the connection between human health and ecology.
Humans are a part of the ecological landscape, and human health is one important part of human interaction with our physical and living environment. Lyme disease, for instance, serves as one modern-day example of the connection between our health and the natural world. More formally known as Lyme borreliosis, Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that can be transmitted to humans when they are bitten by the deer tick (Ixodes scapularis), which is the primary vector for this disease (figure 3.1.1). However, not all deer ticks carry the bacteria that will cause Lyme disease in humans, and I. scapularis can have other hosts besides deer. In fact, it turns out that the probability of infection depends on the type of host upon which the tick develops: a higher proportion of ticks that live on white-footed mice carry the bacterium than do ticks that live on deer. Knowledge about the environments and population densities in which the host species is abundant would help a physician or an epidemiologist better understand how Lyme disease is transmitted and how its incidence could be reduced.
Ecologists ask questions across four levels of biological organization—organismal, population, community, and ecosystem. At the organismal level, ecologists study individual organisms and how they interact with their environments. At the population and community levels, ecologists explore, respectively, how a population of organisms changes over time and the ways in which that population interacts with other species in the community. Ecologists studying an ecosystem examine the living species (the biotic components) of the ecosystem as well as the nonliving portions (the abiotic components), such as air, water, and soil, of the environment. The objective of this unit will be to further explore these topics and how they connect to and overlap with environmental science.
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 specific levels, sometimes discretely and sometimes with overlap: organism, population, community, and ecosystem (figure 3.1.2).
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 3.1.3) is considered a specialist because the females preferentially oviposit (that is, lay eggs) on wild lupine. This preferential adaptation means that the Karner blue butterfly is highly dependent on the presence of wild lupine plants for its continued survival.
After hatching, the larval caterpillars emerge and spend four to six weeks feeding solely on wild lupine (figure 3.1.4). The caterpillars pupate (undergo 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. A researcher interested in studying Karner blue butterflies at the organismal level might, in addition to asking questions about egg laying, ask questions about the butterflies’ preferred 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 examples of artificial boundaries include 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. Population ecologists are particularly interested in counting the Karner blue butterfly, for example, because it is classified as federally endangered. However, the distribution and density of this species is highly influenced by the distribution and abundance of wild lupine. 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 among 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. Mutualism is a form of a 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 the probability of survival when Karner blue butterfly larvae (caterpillars) are tended by ants. 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, the Karner blue butterfly larvae secrete 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.
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 (non-living 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 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.
Career Connection: Ecologist
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 3.1.5). 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 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 sound foundation in mathematics and statistics.