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17.22: Levels of Ecological Research

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    46340
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    Learning Objectives
    • Define ecology and the four levels of ecological research

    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. The same subdivisions occur in ecology. 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 1).

    A flow chart of three boxes shows the hierarchy of living organisms. The top box is labeled “Organisms, populations, and communities” and has a photograph of tall trees in a forest. The second box is labeled “ecosystems” and has a photograph of a body of water, behind which is a stand of tall grasses developing into more dense vegetation and trees as distance from the water increases. The third box is labeled “the biosphere” and shows a drawing of planet Earth.
    Figure 1. Ecologists study within several biological levels of organization. (credit “organisms”: modification of work by “Crystl”/Flickr; credit “ecosystems”: modification of work by Tom Carlisle, US Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters; credit “biosphere”: NASA)

    Organismal Ecology

    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) is a rare butterfly that lives only in open areas with few trees or shrubs, such as pine barrens and oak savannas. It is considered a specialist because the females preferentially oviposit (that is, lay eggs) on wild lupine (Figure 2). This preferential adaptation means that the Karner blue butterfly is highly dependent on the presence of wild lupine plants for its continued survival.

    Photo A depicts a Karner blue butterfly, which has light blue wings with gold ovals and black dots around the edges. Photo B depicts a wild lupine flower, which is long and thin with clam-shaped petals radiating out from the center. The bottom third of the flower is blue, the middle is pink and blue, and the top is green.
    Figure 2. (a) The Karner blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis). (b) The wild lupine (Lupinus perennis) is the host plant for the Karner blue butterfly (credit a: modification of work by J & K Hollingsworth, USFWS; credit b: Joel Trick, USFWS)

    After hatching, the larval caterpillars emerge and spend four to six weeks feeding solely on wild lupine. 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).

    Population Ecology

    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.

    Community Ecology

    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

    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.

    Watch this video for another introduction to ecology:

    Thumbnail for the embedded element "Ecology - Rules for Living on Earth: Crash Course Biology #40"

    A YouTube element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here: pb.libretexts.org/fob1/?p=510

    Try It

    Ecology can also be classified on the basis of:

    • the primary kinds of organism under study (e.g. animal ecology, plant ecology, insect ecology)
    • the biomes principally studied (e.g. forest ecology, grassland ecology, desert ecology, benthic ecology, marine ecology, urban ecology)
    • the geographic or climatic area (e.g. arctic ecology, tropical ecology)
    • the spatial scale under consideration (e.g. macroecology, landscape ecology)
    • the philosophical approach (e.g. systems ecology which adopts a holistic approach)
    • the methods used (e.g. molecular ecology)

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