What is ecology?

Ecology, or environmental biology, is study of the distribution and abundance of organisms, the interactions and relationships between them and their environment, and the structure and function of ecosystems. Ecology is an integrated discipline that encompasses a wide range of other disciplines, including chemistry, physics, geology, oceanography, taxonomy, statistics, and climatology.

What do we already know about ecology?

We know that the biology of the natural world can be arranged into a series of groups according to their scale: genes, cells and tissues, organisms, species, populations, communities, ecosystems, biomes and the biosphere. The basic unit used in ecology is the ecosystem, a relatively self-contained community of several species, interacting with each other and their environment. Species within an ecosystem are arranged into a series of groups according to their trophic level, that is, their position in the food chain: primary producers, primary consumers, secondary consumers, tertiary consumers and apex predators. We also know that matter and energy flows through ecosystems via these food chains and the interactions of living components with non-living components, such as temperature, light, soil, water and wind.

Why is it important to study ecology?

Understanding ecology is a key part of determining how both marine- and land-based ecosystems function and their interdependence, and is vital for the prediction of human impacts on the environment, particularly in terms of biodiversity loss, climate change and pollution. Ecology can help inform biological conservation efforts to maintain a healthy natural environment for future generations and preserve ecosystems and their functions. Ecological studies are also vital for human well-being and resource management, for example, agricultural, fisheries and forestry management.

What research is being done?

Research on ecology includes studies on plant and animal behaviour, the distribution and abundance of organisms and their interaction with the environment and their response to changing environmental conditions, indicator species, the genetic makeup and life history of organisms, biogeochemical cycles and the flow of energy, and dynamics, structure and function at the population, community and ecosystem levels. Studies also include research on monitoring and determining the impacts of biodiversity loss, climate change and pollution, land-use and habitat management, management of aquatic resources and the management of pests, weeds and disease, ecological restoration and conservation, and sustainability.

How is ecology studied?

Ecology is primarily studied by conducting controlled laboratory and field experiments designed to test the effects of exposing organisms to different conditions. The behaviour of organisms can be studies using technology such as tagging and tracking, and acoustic devices. Ecologists also conduct simple physical measurements, such as temperature and light, and chemical measurements to for example, trace the flow of nutrients, energy and pollutants. Ecological studies also use various statistical methods to determine the significance of their findings.

Where can I find out more?

British Ecological Society

Ecological Society of America

National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis: Kids Do Ecology

If you want to get involved with our ecology research, or any other part of the HMS Beagle Project’s science programme, please contact us.