• Biology Ecology
  • Ecology: The Study of Interactions

    Jay-Z might have had 99 problems, but ecologists have trillions. To find out why, let’s talk about what ecology actually is.

    Ecology is simply the study of how and why organisms interact with their environments. Even though that sounds like a simple statement, there are literally worlds of complexity behind it, and there is a whole army of technicians and ecologists around the world to prove it!

    People want to know how and why organisms interact with their environments for all sorts of reasons. Wildlife managers might want to know what’s causing an endangered species to go extinct, for example, so they can take measures to stop it. Or maybe health officials want to know how mosquitoes spread diseases so they can help people stay healthy.

    How to Find More Fun Untamed Science Ecology Information

    We’ll talk about what ecology actually is in this article, but to get specific, click through the sidebar at right. You’ll find more in-depth articles on the basics of ecology, and if you click on Ecology Articles, you’ll find even more detailed topics.

    The Tree of Life page has links to information about all kinds of living organisms, with information about their ecology as well. Finally, if you have something specific you’re looking for, hit the magnifying glass above to search the site. And throughout, you’ll find our signature videos, like this one on remote sensing:

    What do ecologists study?

    Ecologists rely a lot on the scientific method when doing research. They have to come up with questions that they can try to answer. Here are some examples of research questions that an ecologist might ask. See if you can spot the interactions they’re studying:

    1. What do bears in Yellowstone National Park prefer to eat?
    2. Can plants use mycorrhizae to talk to each other?
    3. What type of grass grows best in soils that have been damaged by mining?
    4. How and why do koalas visit different trees in a forest?
    5. What caused the last wooly mammoth to die?

    As a comparison, here are some examples of research questions that are not considered ecology. See if you can spot why:

    1. How many people have autism?
    2. How should we classify newly-discovered slime mold beetles, named after the U.S. politicians Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld?
    3. How symmetrical are wolf skulls?
    4. How long do people survive after having surgery to fix the Tetralogy of Fallot heart defect?
    5. How does caffeine work inside your body to keep you awake?

    Did you notice a pattern? Non-ecologists generally focus on describing something that is happening in nature, much like how a reporter describes the facts of what happened. Non-ecologists also focus on things that happen entirely within individual organisms.

    Ecologists, on the other hand, focus on what causes things to happen between different organisms. Their versions of these questions might be: Are there any environmental effects that cause autism?; What caused so many different types of slime mold beetles to evolve?; Why are wolf skulls asymmetrical?

    What types of ecology are there?

    As you can see, ecology is an extremely broad topic because it’s basically a way to understand how our entire world works together. There are literally trillions of different things you can study, and they change every day.

    To make things a bit easier, scientists often refer to specific types of ecology. You can take almost any topic, slap “ecology” behind it, and it’s a new discipline. You can study armadillo ecology, soil ecology, banana ecology, etc. Nevertheless, there are some general, all-encompassing categories. Here are a few:

    Biogeochemistry

    Biogeochemists study big-picture issues of how organisms affect the geology and chemistry of the Earth. This involves studying a lot of cycles, such as the carbon cycle or the water cycle.

    These scientists focus on how and why elements and molecules move around in the ecosystem. For example, how much methane does the cattle industry produce, and how does this contribute to climate change?

    Population Ecology

    Population ecologists are math nerds who spend most of their days crunching numbers in front of a computer, punctuated by brief periods of extreme excitement where they collect data on number of individuals in a population.

    Population ecologists generally try to solve problems about how and why populations change over time. They are very important to land managers who want to know what’s happening on their land. They also sometimes make recommendations about how to increase or decrease certain populations, depending on what land managers want.

    Restoration Ecology

    Restoration ecologists focus on how to turn an area back into a more natural state after some big disturbance has happened, like mining, development, or desertification. Usually restoration ecologists are most concerned with plants—if they can figure out the best plants to grow in a disturbed area, the wildlife and other critters will usually follow.

    Humans have caused a huge amount of disturbance to the landscape, so nowadays restoration ecology is a big business. Just cleaning up former large industrial mining sites, for example, costs up to $681 million per year—it’s one of the reasons these places are called Superfund sites!

    Nutritional Ecology

    Nutritional ecologists focus on how an organism’s quest for food affects how it interacts with its environment. To study this, a nutritional ecologist needs to find out how many nutrients an organism needs, where it can get those nutrients from, and how many nutrients it can get from each source.

    Once a nutritional ecologist has answered these questions, they can start to ask other questions: What would happen if the main source of certain nutrients disappeared? What if an area was developed and an animal couldn’t get there to eat? Why do animals migrate? These are just a few questions that nutritional ecologists can help answer.

    Putting It All Together

    Different types of ecology can nest within each other, too. For example, if you’re studying bandicoot populations, it would be considered both bandicoot ecology and population ecology. A single research project can actually be considered several types of ecology. The opportunities for research questions and exploration in ecology are endless!

    Written by Lindsay VanSomeren

    Lindsay graduated with a master’s degree in wildlife biology and conservation from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She also spent her time in Alaska racing sled dogs, and studying caribou and how well they are able to digest nutrients from their foods. Now, she enjoys sampling fine craft beers in Fort Collins, Colorado, knitting, and helping to inspire people to learn more about wildlife, nature, and science in general.

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