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An ecosystem is a complete community of living organisms and the nonliving materials of their surroundings. Thus, its components include plants, animals, and microorganisms; soil, rocks, and minerals; as well as surrounding water sources and the local atmosphere. The size of ecosystems varies tremendously. An ecosystem could be an entire rain forest, covering a geographical area larger than many nations, or it could be a puddle or a backyard garden. Even the body of an animal could be considered an ecosystem, since it is home to numerous microorganisms. On a much larger scale, the history of various human societies provides an instructive illustration as to the ways that ecosystems have influenced civilizations.


The Biosphere

Earth itself could be considered a massive ecosystem, in which the living and nonliving worlds interact through four major subsystems: the atmosphere, hydrosphere (all the planet's waters, except for moisture in the atmosphere), geosphere (the soil and the extreme upper portion of the continental crust), and biosphere. The biosphere includes all living things: plants (from algae and lichen to shrubs and trees), mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, aquatic life, insects, and all manner of microscopic forms, including bacteria and viruses. In addition, the biosphere draws together all formerly living things that have not yet decomposed.

Several characteristics unite the biosphere. One is the obvious fact that everything in it is either living or recently living. Then there are the food webs that connect organisms on the basis of energy flow from one species to another. A food web is similar to the more familiar concept food chain, but in scientific terms a food chaina series of singular organisms in which each plant or animal depends on the organism that precedes or follows itdoes not exist. Instead, the feeding relationships between organisms in the real world are much more complex and are best described as a web rather than a chain.

Food Webs

Food webs are built around the flow of energy between organisms, known as energy transfer, which begins with plant life. Plants absorb energy in two ways. From the Sun, they receive electromagnetic energy in the form of visible light and invisible infrared waves, which they convert to chemical energy through a process known as photosynthesis. In addition, plants take in nutrients from the soil, which contain energy in the forms of various chemical compounds. These compounds may be organic, which typically means that they came from living things, though, in fact, the term organic refers strictly to characteristic carbon-based chemical structures. Plants also receive inorganic compounds from minerals in the soil. (See Minerals. For more about the role of carbon in inorganic compounds, see Carbon Cycle.)

Contained in these minerals are six chemical elements essential to the sustenance of life on planet Earth: hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. These are the elements involved in biogeochemical cycles, through which they continually are circulated between the living and nonliving worldsthat is, between organisms, on the one hand, and the inorganic realms of rocks, minerals, water, and air, on the other (see Biogeochemical Cycles).


As plants take up nutrients from the soil, they convert them into other forms, which provide usable energy to organisms who eat the plants. (An example of this conversion process is cellular respiration, discussed in Carbon Cycle.) When an herbivore, or plant-eating organism, eats the plant, it incorporates this energy.

Chances are strong that the herbivore will be eaten either by a carnivore, a meat-eating organism, or by an omnivore, an organism that consumes both herbs and herbivoresthat is, both plants and animals. Few animals consume carnivores or omnivores, at least by hunting and killing them. (Detritivores and decomposers, which we discuss presently, consume the remains of all creatures, including carnivores and omnivores.) Humans are an example of omnivores, but they are far from the only omnivorous creatures. Many bird species, for instance, are omnivorous.

As nutrients pass from plant to herbivore to carnivore, the total amount of energy in them decreases. This is dictated by the second law of thermodynamics (see Energy and Earth), which shows that energy transfers cannot be perfectly efficient. Energy is not "lost"the total amount of energy in the universe remains fixed, though it may vary with a particular system, such as an individual ecosystembut it is dissipated, or directed into areas that do not aid in the transfer of energy between organisms. What this means for the food web is that each successive level contains less energy than the levels that precede it.


In the case of a food web, something interesting happens with regard to energy efficiency as soon as we pass beyond carnivores and omnivores to the next level. It might seem at first that there could be no level beyond carnivores or omnivores, since they appear to be "at the top of the food chain," but this only illustrates why the idea of a food web is much more useful. After carnivores and omnivores, which include some of the largest, most powerful, and most intelligent creatures, come the lowliest of all organisms: decomposers and detritivores, an integral part of the food web.

Decomposers, which include bacteria and fungi, obtain their energy from the chemical breakdown of dead organisms as well as from animal and plant waste products. Detritivores perform a similar function: by feeding on waste matter, they break organic material down into inorganic substances that then can become available to the biosphere in the form of nutrients for plants. The principal difference between detritivores and decomposers is that the former are relatively complex organisms, such as earthworms or maggots.

Both decomposers and detritivores aid in decomposition, a chemical reaction in which a compound is broken down into simpler compounds or into its constituent elements. Often an element such as nitrogen appears in forms that are not readily usable by organisms, and therefore such elements (which may appear individually or in compounds) need to be chemically processed through the body of a decomposer or detritivore. This processing involves chemical reactions in which the substancewhether an element or compoundis transformed into a more usable version.

By processing chemical compounds from the air, water, and geosphere, decomposers and detritivores deposit nutrients in the soil. These creatures feed on plant life, thus making possible the cycle we have described. Clearly this system, of which we have sketched only the most basic outlines, is an extraordinarily complex and well-organized one, in which every organism plays a specific role. In fact, earth scientists working in the realm of biosphere studies use the term niche to describe the role that a particular organism plays in its community. (For more about the interaction of species in a biological community, see Ecology and Ecological Stress.)


The Fate of Human Civilizations

An interesting place to start in investigating examples of ecosystems is with a species near and dear to all of us: Homo sapiens. Much has been written about the negative effect industrial civilization has, or may have, on the natural environmenta topic discussed in Ecology and Ecological Stressbut here our concern is somewhat different. What do ecosystems, and specifically the availability of certain plants and animals, teach us about specific societies?

In his 1997 bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, the ethnobotanist Jared M. Diamond (1937-) explained how he came to approach this question. While he was working with native peoples in New Guinea, a young man asked him why the societies of the West enjoyed an abundance of material wealth and comforts while those of New Guinea had so little. It was a simple question, but the answer was not obvious.

Diamond refused to give any of the usual pat responses offered in the pastfor example, the Marxist or socialist claim that the West prospers at the expense of native peoples. Nor, of course, could he accept the standard answer that a white descendant of Europeans might have given a century earlier, that white Westerners are smarter than dark-skinned peoples. Instead, he approached it as a question of environment, and the result was his thought-provoking analysis contained in Guns, Germs, and Steel.


As Diamond showed, those places where agriculture was first born were precisely those blessed with favorable climate, soil, and indigenous plant and animal life. Incidentally, none of these locales was European, nor were any of the peoples inhabiting them "white." Agriculture came into existence in four places during a period from about 8000 to 6000 b.c. In roughly chronological order, they were Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China. All were destined to emerge as civilizations, complete with written language, cities, and organized governments, between about 3000 and 2000 b.c.

Of course, it is no accident that civilization was born first in those societies that first developed agriculture: before a civilization can evolve, a society must become settled, and in order for that to happen, it must develop agriculture. Each of these societies, it should be noted, formed along a river, and that of Mesopotamia was born at the confluence of two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. No wonder, then, that the spot where these two rivers met was identified in the Bible as the site for the Garden of Eden or that historians today refer to ancient Mesopotamia as "the Fertile Crescent." (For a very brief analysis regarding possible reasons why modern Mesopotamiathat is, Iraqdoes not fit this description, see the discussion of desertification in Soil Conservation.)

In the New World, by contrast, agriculture appeared much later and in a much more circumscribed way. The same was true of Africa and the Pacific Islands. In seeking the reasons for why this happened, Diamond noted a number of factors, including geography. The agricultural areas of the Old World were stretched across a wide area at similar latitudes. This meant that the climates were not significantly different and would support agricultural exchanges, such as the spread of wheat and other crops from one region or ecosystem to another. By contrast, the land masses of the New World or Africa have a much greater north-south distance than they do east to west.


Today such places as the American Midwest support abundant agriculture, and one might wonder why that was not the case in the centuries before Europeans arrived. The reason is simple but subtle, and it has nothing to do with Europeans' "superiority" over Native Americans. The fact is that the native North American ecosystems enjoyed far less biological diversity, or biodiversity, than their counterparts in the Old World. Peoples of the New World successfully domesticated corn and potatoes, because those were available to them. But they could not domesticate emmer wheat, the variety used for making bread, when they had no access to that species, which originated in Mesopotamia and spread throughout the Old World.

Similarly, the New World possessed few animals that could be domesticated either for food or labor. A number of Indian tribes domesticated some types of birds and other creatures for food, but the only animal ever adapted for labor was the llama. The llama, a cousin of the camel found in South America, is too small to carry heavy loads. Why did the Native Americans never harness the power of cows, oxen, or horses? For the simple reason that these species were not found in the Americas. After horses in the New World went extinct at some point during the last Ice Age (see Paleontology), they did not reappear in the Americas until Europeans brought them after a.d. 1500.

Diamond also noted the link between biodiversity and the practice, common among peoples in New Guinea and other remote parts of the world, of eating what Westerners would consider strange cuisine: caterpillars, insectseven, in some cases, human flesh. At one time, such practices served only to brand these native peoples further as "savages" in the eyes of Europeans and their descendants, but it turns out that there is a method to the apparent madness. In places such as the highlands of New Guinea, a scarcity of animal protein sources compels people to seek protein wherever they can find it.

By contrast, from ancient times the Fertile Crescent possessed an extraordinary diversity of animal life. Among the creatures present in that region (the term sometimes is used to include Egypt as well as Mesopotamia) were sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, and horses. With the help of these animals for both food and laborpeople ate horses long before they discovered their greater value as a mode of transportationthe lands of the Old World were in a position to progress far beyond their counterparts in the New.


Ultimately, these societies came to dominate their physical environments and excel in the development of technology; hence the "steel" and "guns" in Diamond's title. But what about "germs"? It is a fact that after Europeans began arriving in the New World, they killed vast populations without firing a shot, thanks to the microbes they carried with them. Of course, it would be centuries before scientists discovered the existence of microorganisms. But even in 1500, it was clear that the native peoples of the New World had no natural resistance to smallpox or a host of other diseases, including measles, chicken pox, influenza, typhoid fever, and bubonic plague.

Once again the Europeans' advantage over the Native Americans derived from the ecological complexity of their world compared with that of the Indians. In the Old World, close contact with farm animals exposed humans to germs and disease. So, too, did close contact with other people in crowded, filthy cities. This exposure, of course, killed off large numbers of people, but those who survived tended to be much hardier and possessed much stronger immune systems. Therefore, when Europeans came into contact with native Americans, they were like walking biological warfare weapons.

Evaluating Ecosystems

The ease with which Europeans subdued Native Americans fueled the belief that Europeans weresuperior, but, as Diamond showed, if anythingwas superior, it was the ecosystems of the Old World. This "superiority" relates in large part to the diversity of organisms an ecosystem possesses. Many millions of years ago, Earth's oceans and lands were populated with just a few varieties of single-cell organisms, but over time increasingdifferentiation of species led to the development of the much more complex ecosystems we know now.

Such differentiation is essential, given the many basic types of ecosystem that the world has to offer: forests and grasslands, deserts and aquatic environments, mountains and jungles. Among the many ways that these ecosystems can be evaluated, aside from such obvious parameters as relative climate, is in terms of abundance and complexity of species.


The biota (a combination of all flora and fauna, or plant and animal life, respectively) in a desert or the Arctic tundra is much less complex than that of a tropical rain forest or, indeed, almost any kind of forest, because far fewer species can live in a desert or tundra environment. For this reason, it is said that a desert or tundra ecosystem is less complex than a forest one. There may be relatively large numbers of particular species in a less complex ecosystem, however, in which case the ecosystem is said to be abundant though not complex in a relative sense.

Another way to evaluate ecosystems is in terms of productivity. This concept refers to the amount of biomasspotentially burnable energyproduced by green plants as they capture sunlight and use its energy to create new organic compounds that can be consumed by local animal life. Once again, a forest, and particularly a rain forest, has a very high level of productivity, whereas a desert or tundra ecosystem does not.


Now let us look more closely at a full-fledged ecosystemthat of a forestin action. It might seem that all forests are the same, but this could not be less the case. A forest is simply any ecosystem dominated by tree-sized woody plants. Beyond that, the characteristics of weather, climate, elevation, latitude, topography, tree species, varieties of animal species, moisture levels, and numerous other parameters create the potential for an almost endless diversity of forest types.

In fact, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines 24 different types of forest, which are divided into two main groups. On the one hand, there are those forests with a closed canopy at least 16.5 ft. (5 m) high. The canopy is the upper portion of the trees in the forest, and closed-canopy forests are so dense with vegetation that from the ground the sky is not visible. On the other hand, the UNESCO system encompasses open woodlands with a shorter, more sparse, and unclosed canopy. The first group tends to be tropical and subtropical (located at or near the equator), while the second typically is located in temperate and subpolar foreststhat is, in a region between the two tropical latitudes and the Arctic and Antarctic circles, respectively. In the next paragraphs, we examine a few varieties of forest as classified by UNESCO.


Tropical rain forests are complex ecosystems with a wide array of species. The dominant tree type is an angiosperm (a type of plant that produces flowers during sexual reproduction), known colloquially as tropical hard-woods. The climate and weather are what one would expect to find in a place called a tropical rain forest, that is, rainy and warm. When the rain falls, it cools things down, but when the sun comes back out, it turns the world of the tropical rain forest into a humid, sauna-like environment.

Naturally, the creatures that have evolved in and adapted to a tropical rain forest environment are those capable of enduring high humidity, but they are tolerant of neither extremely cool conditions nor drought. Within those parameters, however, exists one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth: the tropical rain forest is home to an astonishing array of animals, plants, insects, and microorganisms. Indeed, without the tropical rain forest, terrestrial (land-based) animal life on Earth would be noticeably reduced.

In the tropics, by definition the four seasons to which we are accustomed in temperate zoneswinter, spring, summer, and falldo not exist. In their place there is a rainy season and a dry season, but there is no set point in the year at which trees shed their leaves. In a tropical and subtropical evergreen forest conditions are much drier than in the rain forest, and individual trees or tree species may shed their leaves as a result of dry conditions. All trees and species do not do so at the same time, however, so the canopy remains rich in foliage year-roundhence the term evergreen. As with a rain forest, the evergreen forest possesses a vast diversity of species.

In contrast to the two tropical forest ecosystems just described, a mangrove forest is poor in species. In terms of topography and landform, these forests are found in low-lying, muddy regions near saltwater. Thus, the climate is likely to be humid, as in a rain forest, but only organisms that can tolerate flooding and high salt levels are able to survive there. Mangrove trees, a variety of angiosperm, are suited to this environment and to the soil, which is poor in oxygen.


Among the temperate and sub-arctic forest types are temperate deciduous forests, containing trees that shed their leaves seasonally, and temperate and subarctic evergreen conifer forests, in which the trees produce cones bearing seeds. These are forest types familiar to most people in the continental United States. The first variety is dominated by such varieties as oak, walnut, and hickory, while the second is populated by pine, spruce, or fir as well as other types, such as hemlock.

Less familiar to most Americans outside the West Coast are temperate winter-rain evergreen broadleaf forests. These forests are dominated by evergreen angiosperms and appear in regions that have both a pronounced wet season and a summer drought season. Such forests can be found in southern California, where an evergreen oak of the Quercus genus is predominant. Even less familiar to Americans is the temperate and subpolar evergreen rain forest, which is found in the Southern Hemisphere. Occurring in a wet, frost-free ocean environment, these forests are dominated by such evergreen angiosperms as the southern beech and southern pine.

Angiosperms vs. Gymnosperms

Several times we have referred to angiosperms, a name that encompasses not just certain types of tree but also all plants that produce flowers during sexual reproduction. The name, which comes from Latin roots meaning "vessel seed," is a reference to the fact that the plant keeps its seeds in a vessel whose name emphasizes these plants' sexual-type reproduction: an ovary.

Angiosperms are a beautiful example of how a particular group of organisms can adapt to specific ecosystems and do so in a way much more efficient than did their evolutionary forebear. Flowering plants evolved only about 130 million years ago, by which time Earth had long since been dominated by another variety of seed-producing plant, the gymnosperm, of which pines and firs are an example. Yet in a relatively short period of time, from the standpoint of the earth sciences, angiosperms have gone on to become the dominant plants in the world. Today, about 80% of all living plant species are flowering plants.


How did they do this? They did it by developing a means to coexist more favorably than gymnosperms with the insect and animal life in their ecosystems. Gymnosperms produce their seeds on the surface of leaflike structures, making the seeds vulnerable to physical damage and drying as the wind whips the branches back and forth. Furthermore, insects and other animals view gymnosperm seeds as a source of nutrition.

In an angiosperm, by contrast, the seeds are tucked away safely inside the ovary. Furthermore, the evolution of the flower not only has added a great deal of beauty to the world but also has provided a highly successful mechanism for sexual reproduction. This sexual reproduction makes it possible to develop new genetic variations, as genetic material from two individuals of differing ancestry come together to produce new offspring.


Gymnosperms reproduce sexually as well, but they do so by a less efficient method. In both cases, the trees have to overcome a significant challenge: the fact that sexual reproduction normally requires at least one of the individual plants to be mobile. Gymnosperms package the male reproductive component in tiny pollen grains, which are released into the wind. Eventually, the grains are blown toward the female component of another individual plant of the same species.

This method succeeds well enough to sustain large and varied populations of gymnosperms but at a terrific cost, as is evident to anyone who lives in a region with a high pollen count in the spring. A yellow dust forms on everything. So much pollen accumulates on window sills, cars, mailboxes, and roofs that only a good rain (or a car wash) can take it away, and one tends to wonder what good all this pollen is doing for the trees.

The truth is that pollination is wasteful and inefficient. Like all natural mechanisms, it benefit the overall ecosystem, in this case, by making nutrient-rich pollen grains available to the soil. Packed with energy, pollen grains contain large quantities of nitrogen, making them a major boost to the ecosystem if not to the human environment. But it costs the gymnosperm a great deal, in terms of chemical and biological energy and material, to produce pollen grains, and the benefits are much more uncertain.

Pollen might make it to the right female component, and, in fact, it will, given the huge amounts of pollen produced. Yet the overall system is rather like trying to solve an economic problem by throwing a pile of dollar bills into the air and hoping that some of the money lands in the right place. For this reason, it is no surprise that angiosperms gradually are overtaking gymnosperms.


The angiosperm overcomes its own lack of mobility by making use of mobile organisms. Whereas insects and animals pose a threat to gymnosperms, angiosperms actually put bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other flower-seeking creatures to work aiding their reproductive process. By evolving bright colors, scents, and nectar, the flowers of angiosperms attract animals, which travel from one flower to another, accidentally moving pollen as they do.

Because of this remarkably efficient system, animal-pollinated species of flowering plants do not need to produce as much pollen as gymnosperms. Instead, they can put their resources into other important functions, such as growth and greater seed production. In this way, the angiosperm solves its own problem of reproductionand as a side benefit adds enormously to the world's beauty.

The Complexity of Ecosystems

The relationships between these two types of seed-producing plant and their environments illustrate, in a very basic way, the complex interactions between species in an ecosystem. Environmentalists often speak of a "delicate balance" in the natural world, and while there is some dispute as to how delicate that balance isnature shows an amazing resilience in recovering from the worst kinds of damagethere is no question that a balance of some kind exists.

To put it another way, an ecosystem is an extraordinarily complex environment that brings together biological, geologic, hydrologic, and atmospheric components. Among these components are trees and other plants; animals, insects, and microorganisms; rocks, soil, minerals, and landforms; water in the ground and on the surface, flowing or in a reservoir; wind, sun, rain, moisture; and all the other specifics that make up weather and climate.

In the present context, we have not attempted to provide anything even approaching a comprehensive portrait of an ecosystem, drawing together all or most of the aspects described in the preceding paragraph. A full account of even the simplest ecosystem would fill an entire book. Given that level of complexity, it is safe to say that one should be very cautious before tampering with the particulars of an ecosystem. The essay on Ecology and Ecological Stress concerns what happens when such tampering occurs.


Beattie, Andrew J., and Paul Ehrlich. Wild Solutions: How Biodiversity Is Money in the Bank. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.

Diamond, Jared M. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

The Ecosystems Center. Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts (Web site). <>.

Ecotopia (Web site). <>.

Jordan, Richard N. Trees and People: Forestland, Ecosystems, and Our Future. Lanham, MD: Regnery Publishing, 1994.

Living Things: Habitats and Ecosystems (Web site). <>.

Martin, Patricia A. Woods and Forests. Illus. Bob Italiano and Stephen Savage. New York: Franklin Watts, 2000.

Nebel, Bernard J., and Richard T. Wright. Environmental Science: The Way the World Works. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Rybolt, Thomas R., and Robert C. Mebane. Environmental Experiments About Life. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1993.

The State of the Nation's Ecosystems (Web site). <>.

Sustainable Ecosystems Institute (Web site). <>.



A measure of the degree to which an ecosystem possesses large numbers of particular species. An abundant ecosystem may or may not have a wide array of different species. Compare with complexity.


A type of plant that produces flowers during sexual reproduction.


The changes that particular elements undergo as they pass back and forth through the various earth systems and particularly between living and nonliving matter. The elements involved in biogeochemical cycles are hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur.


A combination of all flora and fauna (plant and animal life, respectively) in a region.


The upper portion of the trees in a forest. In a closed-canopy forest the canopy (which may be several hundredfeet, or well over 50 meters, high) protects the soil and lower areas from sun and torrential rainfall.


A meat-eating organism.


A measure of the degree to which an ecosystem possesses a wide array of species. These species may or may not appear in large numbers. Compare with abundance.


A substance made up of atoms of more than one element chemically bonded to one another.


Organisms that obtain their energy from the chemical breakdown of dead organisms as well as from animal and plant waste products. The principal forms of decomposer are bacteria and fungi.


A chemical reaction in which a compound is broken down into simpler compounds or into its constituent elements. On Earth, this often is achieved through the help of detritivores and decomposers.


Organisms that feed on waste matter, breaking down organic material into inorganic substances that then can become available to the biosphere in the form of nutrients for plants. Their function is similar to that of decomposers, but unlike decomposerswhich tend to be bacteria or fungidetritivores are relatively complex organisms, such as earthworms or maggots.


A community of interdependent organisms along with the inorganic components of their environment.


A substance made up of only one kind of atom. Unlike compounds, elements cannot be broken chemically into other substances.


The flow of energy between organisms in a food web.


A term describing the interaction of plants, herbivores, carnivores, omnivores, decomposers, and detritivores in an ecosystem. Each consumes nutrients and passes it along to other organisms. Earth scientists typically prefer this name to food chain, an everyday term for a similar phenomenon. A food chain is a series of singular organisms in which each plant or animal depends on the organism that precedes or follows it. Food chains rarely exist in nature.


The upper part of Earth's continental crust, or that portion of the solid earth on which human beings live and which provides them with most of their food and natural resources.


A type of plant that reproduces sexually through the use of seeds that are exposed, not hidden in an ovary, as with an angiosperm.


A plant-eating organism.


The entirety of Earth's water, excluding water vapor in the atmosphere but including all oceans, lakes, streams, groundwater, snow, and ice.


A term referring to the role that a particular organism plays within its biological community.


An organism that eats both plants and other animals.


At one time, chemists used the term organic only in reference to living things. Now the word is applied to most compounds containing carbon and hydrogen, thus excluding carbonates (which are minerals) and oxides, such as carbondioxide.


The biological conversion of light energy (that is, electromagnetic energy) from the Sun to chemical energy in plants.


Any set of interactions that can be set apart mentally from the rest of the universe for the purposes of study, observation, and measurement.

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The health of humans, like all living organisms, is dependent on an ecosystem that sustains life. Healthy ecosystems are the sine qua non for healthy organisms. Yet there is abundant evidence that many life-support systems are far from healthy, placing an increased burden on human health. In some areas of the world, gains in life expectancy and quality of life made during the twentieth century are at risk of being reversed in the twenty-first century. The consequences of ecosystem degradation to human health are numerous, and include health risks from unsafe drinking water, polluted air, climate change, emerging new diseases, and the resurgence of old diseases owing to ecological imbalances. Reversing this damage is possible in some cases, but not in others. Prevention of ecological damage is by far the most efficient strategy.


An ecological system may be defined as a community of plants and animals interacting with each other and their abiotic, or natural, environment. Typically, ecosystems are differentiated on the basis of dominant vegetation, topography, climate, or some other criteria. Boreal forests, for example, are characterized by the predominance of coniferous trees; prairies are characterized by the predominance of grasses; the Arctic tundra is determined partly by the harsh climatic zone. In most areas of the world, the human community is an important and often dominant component of the ecosystem. Ecosystems include not only natural areas (e.g., forests, lakes, marine coastal systems) but also human-constructed systems (e.g., urban ecosystems, agroecosystems, impoundments). Human populations are increasingly concentrated in urban ecosystems, and it is estimated that, by the year 2010, 50 percent of the world's population will be living in urban areas.

A landscape comprises a mosaic of ecosystems, including towns, rivers, lakes, agricultural systems, and so on. Precise boundaries between ecosystems are often difficult to establish. Often regions slide into one another gradually, over a protracted "transition" zone, as for example between the boreal forest and the Taiga regions of Canada.


It is important to recognize the inherent difficulties in defining "health," whether at the level of the individual, population, or ecosystem. The concept of health is somewhat of an enigma, being easier to define in its absence (sickness) than in its presence. Perhaps partially for that reason, ecologists have resisted applying the notion of "health" to ecosystems. Yet, ecosystems can become dysfunctional, particularly under chronic stress from human activity. For example, the discharge of nutrients from sewage, industrial waste, or agricultural runoff into lakes or rivers affects the normal functioning of the ecosystem, and can result in severe impairment. Excessive nutrient inputs from human activity was one of the major factors that severely compromised the health of the lower Laurentian Great Lakes (Lake Erie and Lake Ontario) and regions of the upper Great Lakes (Lake Michigan). Unfortunately, degraded ecosystems are becoming more the rule than the exception.

The study of the features of degraded systems, and comparisons with systems that have not been altered by human activity, makes it possible to identify the characteristics of healthy ecosystems. Healthy ecosystems may be characterized not only by the absence of signs of pathology, but also by signs of health, including measures of vigor (productivity), organization, and resilience.

Vigor can be assessed in terms of the metabolism (activity and productivity) of the system. Ecosystems differ greatly in their normal ranges of productivity. Estuaries are far more productive than open oceans, and marshes have higher productivity than deserts. Health is not evaluated by applying one standard to all systems. Organization can be assessed by the structure of the biotic community that forms an ecosystem and by the nature of the interactions between the species (both plants and animals). Invariably, healthy ecosystems have more diversity of biota than ecologically compromised systems. Resilience is the capacity of an ecosystem to maintain its structure and functions in the face of natural disturbances. Systems with a history of chronic stress are less likely to recover from normal perturbations such as drought than those systems that have been relatively less stressed.

Healthy ecosystems can also be characterized in economic, social, and human health terms. Healthy ecosystems support a certain level of economic activity. This is not to say that the ecosystem is necessarily self-sufficient, but rather that it supports economic productivity to enable the human community to meet reasonable needs. Inevitably, ecosystem degradation impinges on the long-term sustainability of the human economy that is associated with it, although in the short-term this may not be evident, as natural capital (e.g., soils, renewable resources) may be overexploited and temporarily enhance economic returns. Similarly, with respect to social well-being, healthy ecosystems provide a basis for and encourage community integration. Historically, for example, native Hawaiian groups managed their ecosystem through a well-developed social cohesiveness that provided a high degree of cooperation in fishing and farming activity.

Another reflection of ecosystem health lies directly in the public health domain. In spring 2000, a deadly strain of the bacterium E-coli (0157:H7) entered the public water supply in Walkerton, Ontario, Canada, causing seven deaths and making thousands sick. This small town, with a population of five thousand, is in a farming community. Inadequate manure management from cattle operations was the likely source of this tragedy.


Stress from human activity is a major factor in transforming healthy ecosystems to sick ecosystems. Chronic stress from human activity differs from natural disturbances. Natural disturbances (fires, floods, periodic insect infestations) are part of the dynamics of most ecosystems. These processes help to "reset" ecosystems by recycling nutrients and clearing space for recolonization by biota that may be better adapted to changing environments. Thus, natural perturbations help keep ecosystems healthy. In contrast, chronic and acute stress on ecosystems resulting from human activity (e.g., construction of large dams, release of nutrients and toxic substances into the air, water, and land) generally results in long-term ecological dysfunction.

Five major sources of human-induced (anthropogenic) stresses have been identified by D. J. Rapport and A. M. Friend (1979): physical restructuring, overharvesting, waste residuals, introduction of exotic species, and global change.

Physical Restructuring. Activities such as wetland drainage, removal of shoals in lakes, damming of rivers, and road construction fragment the landscape and alter and damage critical habitat. These activities also disrupt nutrient cycling, and cause the loss of biodiversity.

Overharvesting. Overexploitation is commonplace when it comes to harvesting of wildlife, fisheries, and forests. Over long periods of time, stocks of preferred species are reduced. For example, the giant redwoods that once thrived along the California coast now exist only in remnant patches because of overharvesting. When dominant species like the giant redwoods (arguably the world's tallest treeone specimen was recorded at 110 meters tall with a circumference of 13.4 meters) are lost, the entire ecosystem becomes transformed. Overharvesting often results in reduced biodiversity of endemic species, while facilitating the invasion of opportunistic species.

Waste Residuals. Discharges from municipal, industrial, and agricultural sources into the air, water, and land have severely compromised many of the earth's ecosystems. The effects are particularly apparent in aquatic ecosystems. In some lakes that lack a natural buffering capacity, acid precipitation has eliminated most of the fish and other organisms. While the visual effect appears beneficial (water clarity goes up) the impact on ecosystem health is devastating. Systems that once contained a variety of organisms and were highly productive (biologically) become devoid of most lifeforms except for a few acid-tolerant bacteria and sediment-dwelling organisms.

Introduction of Exotic Species. The spread of exotics has become a problem in almost every ecosystem of the world. Transporting species from their native habitat to entirely new ecosystems can wreck havoc, as the new environments are often without natural checks and balances for the new species. In the Great Lakes Basin, the accidental introduction of two small pelagic fishes, the alewife and the rainbow smelt, combined with the simultaneous overharvesting of natural predators, such as the lake trout, led to a significant decline in native fish species. The introduction of the sea lamprey, an eel-like predacious fish that attacks larger fish, into Lake Erie and the upper Great Lakes further destabilized the native fish community. The sea lamprey contributed to the demise of the deepwater benthic fish community by preying on lake trout, whitefish, and burbot. This contributed to a shift in the fish community from one that had been dominated by large benthics to one dominated by small pelagics (fish found in the upper layers of the lake profile). This shift from bottom-dwelling fish (benthic) to surface-dwelling fish (pelagic) has now been partially reversed by yet another accidental introduction of an exotic: the zebra mussel. As the zebra mussel is a highly efficient filter of both phtyoplankton and zooplankton, its presence has reduced the available food in the surface waters for pelagic fish. However, while the benthic fish community has gained back its dominance, the preferred benthic fish species have not yet recovered owing to the degree of initial degradation. Overall, the increasing dominance by exotics not only altered the ecology, but also reduced significantly the commercial value of the fisheries.

Global Change. Rapid climate change (or climate warming) is an emerging potential global stress on all of the earth's ecosystems. In evolutionary time, there have of course been large fluctuations in climate. However, for the most part these fluctuations have occurred gradually over long periods of time. Rapid climate change is an entirely different matter. By altering both averages and extremes in precipitation, temperature, and storm events, and by destabilizing the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which controls weather patterns over much of the southern Pacific region, many ecosystem processes can become significantly altered. Excessive periods of drought or unusually heavy rains and flooding will exceed the tolerance for many species, thus changing the biotic composition. Flooding and unusually high winds contribute to soil erosion, and at the same time add to nutrient load in rivers and coastal waters.

These anthropogenic stresses have compromised ecosystem function in most regions of the world, resulting in ecosystem distress syndrome (EDS). EDS is characterized by a group of signs, including abnormalities in nutrient cycling, productivity, species diversity and richness, biotic structure, disease prevalence, soil fertility, and so on. The consequences of these changes for human health are not inconsiderable. Impoverished biotic communities are natural harbors for pathogens that affect humans and other species.


An important aspect of ecosystem degradation is the associated increased risk to human health. Traditionally, the concern has been with contaminants, particularly industrial chemicals that can have adverse impacts on human development, neurological functions, reproductive functions, and that appear to be causative agents in a variety of carcinomas. In addition to these serious environmental concerns (where the remedies are often technological, including engineering solutions to reduce the release of contaminants), there are a large number of other risks to human health stemming from ecological imbalance.

Ecosystem distress syndrome results in the loss of valued ecosystem services, including flood control, water quality, air quality, fish and wildlife diversity, and recreation. One of the major signs of EDS is increased disease incidence, both in humans and other species. Human population health should thus be viewed within an ecological context as an expression of the integrity and health of the life-supporting capacity of the environment.

Ecological imbalances triggered by global climate change and other causes are responsible for increased human health risks.

Climate Change and Vector-Borne Diseases. The global infectious disease burden is on the order of several hundred million cases per year. Many vector-borne diseases are climate sensitive. Malaria, dengue fever, hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, and various forms of viral encephalitis are all in this category. All these diseases are the result of arthropod-borne viruses (arboviruses) which are transmitted to humans as a result of bites from blood-sucking arthropods.

Global climate changeparticularly as it impacts both temperatures and precipitationis highly correlated with the prevalence of vector-borne diseases. For example, viruses carried by mosquitoes, ticks, and other blood-sucking arthropods generally have increased transmission rates with rising temperatures. St. Louis encephalitis (SLE) serves as an example. The mosquito Culex tarsalis carries this virus. The percentage of bites that results in transmission of SLE is dependent on temperature, with greater transmission at higher temperatures.

The temperature dependence of vector-borne diseases is also well illustrated with malaria. Malaria is endemic throughout the tropics, with a high prevalence in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and parts of South and Central America and Mexico. Approximately 2.4 billion people live in areas of risk, with some 350 million new infections occurring annually, resulting in approximately 2 million deaths, predominantly in young children. Untreated malaria can become a life-long afflictiongeneral symptoms include fever, headache, and malaise.

The climate sensitivity of malaria arises owing to the nature of the interactions of parasites, vectors, and hosts, all of which impact the ultimate transmission rates to humans. The gestation time required for the parasite to become fully developed within the mosquito host (a process termed sporogony) is from eight to thirty-five days. When temperatures are in the range of 20°C to 27°C, the gestation time is reduced. Rainfall and humidity also have an influence. Both drought and heavy rains tend to reduce the population of mosquitoes that serve as vectors for malaria. In drier regions of the tropics, low rainfall and humidity restricts the survival of mosquitoes. Severe flooding can result in scouring of rivers and destruction of the breeding habitats for the mosquito vector, while intermediate rainfall enhances vector production.

Ecological Imbalances. Cholera is a serious and potentially fatal disease that is caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. While not nearly so prevalent as malaria, cases are nonetheless numerous. In 1993, there were 296,206 new cases of cholera reported in South America; 9,280 cases were reported in Mexico; 62,964 cases in Africa; and 64,599 cases in Asia. Most outbreaks in Asia, Africa, and South America have originated in coastal areas. Symptoms of cholera include explosive watery diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. The most recent pandemic of cholera involved more regions than at any previous time in the twentieth century. The disease remains endemic in India, Bangladesh, and Africa. Vibrio cholerae has also been found in the United Statesin the Gulf Coast region of Texas, Louisiana, and Florida; the Chesapeake Bay area; and the California coast.

The increase in prevalence of V. cholerae has been strongly linked to degraded coastal marine environments. Nutrient-enriched warmer coastal waters, resulting from a combination of climate change and the use of fertilizers, provides an ideal environment for reproduction and dissemination of V. cholerae. Recent outbreaks of cholera in Bangladesh, for example, are closely correlated with higher sea surface temperatures. V. cholerae attach to the surface of both freshwater and marine copepods (crustaceans), as well as to roots and exposed surfaces of macrophytes (aquatic plants) such as the water hyacinth, the most abundant aquatic plant in Bangladesh. Nutrient enrichment and warmer temperatures give rise to algae blooms and an abundance of macrophytes. The algae blooms provide abundant food for copepods, and the increasing copepod and macrophyte populations provide V. cholerae with habitat. Subsequent dispersal of V. cholerae into estuaries and fresh water bodies allows contact with humans who use these waters for drinking and bathing. Global distribution of marine pathogens such as V. cholerae is further facilitated by ballast water discharged from vessels. Ballast water contains a virtual cocktail of pathogens, including V. cholerae.

Two other examples of how ecological imbalances lead to human health burdens concern the increased prevalence of Lyme disease and hantavirus pulmonary disease. Lyme disease, sonamed because it was first positively identified in Lyme, Connecticut, is a crippling arthritic-type disease that is transmitted by spirochete-infected Ixodes ticks (deer ticks). Ticks acquire the infection from rodents, and spend part of their life cycle on deer. Three factors have combined to increase the risk to humans of contracting Lyme disease, particularly in North America: (1) the elimination of natural deer predators, particularly wolves; (2) reforestation of abandoned farmland has created more favorable habitat for deer; and (3) the creation of suburban estates, which the deer find ideal habitat for browsing. The net result is a rising deer population, which increases the chances of humans coming into more contact with ticks.

By 1995, in the southwestern United States, hantavirus infection was confirmed in ninety-four persons in twenty states, with 48 percent mortality. Variants of the strain that causes hantavirus pulmonary syndrome have also been found in other areas of the country, as well as in Asia and Europe. The virus is apparently asymptomatic in rodents, and it is transmitted in their saliva and excreta. In humans it has a flu-like presentation, which is followed by acute respiratory distress syndrome. The primary reservoir in the Four Corners area of the southwestern United States is the deer mouse. Climatic disturbances, which in recent years are thought to be exacerbated by human activity (e.g., global warming), appear to set up conditions that trigger outbreaks. In the early 1990s, ENSO events initially caused drought conditions to develop in the southwestern United States. This led to a decline in plant and animal populations, including natural predators of the deer mouse. Heavy rains followed the drought in 1993, resulting in a bumper crop of piñon nuts, a major food supply for the deer mouse. Subsequently the deer mouse population greatly increased, bringing about increased contact with humans and triggering the outbreak of hantavirus.

Antibiotic Resistance and Agricultural Practice Antibiotic resistance is a growing threat to public health. Antibiotic resistant strains of Streptococcus pneumoniae, a common bacterial pathogen in humans and a leading cause of many infections, including chronic bronchitis, pneumonia, and meningitis, have greatly increased in prevalence since the mid-1970s. In some regions of the world, up to 70 percent of bacterial isolates taken from patients proved resistant to penicillin and other b-lactam antibiotics. The use of large quantities of antibiotics in agriculture and aquaculture appears to have been a key factor in the development of antibiotic resistance by pathogens in farm animals that subsequently may also infect humans. One of the most serious risks to human health from such practices is vancomycin-resistant enterococci. The use of avoparcin, an animal growth promoter, appears to have compromised the utility of vancomycin, the last antibiotic effective against multi-drug-resistant bacteria. In areas where avoparcin has been used, such as on farms in Denmark and Germany, vancomycin-resistant bacteria have been detected in meat sold in supermarkets. Avoparcin was subsequently banned by the European Union. Another example is the use of ofloxacin to protect chickens from infection and thereby enhance their growth. This drug is closely related to ciprofloxacin, one of the most widely used antibiotics in the year 2000. There have been cases of resistance to ciprofloxacin directly related to its veterinary use. In the United Kingdom, ciprofloxacin resistance developed in strains of campylobacter, a common cause of diarrhea. Multi-drug-resistant strains of salmonella have been traced to European egg production.

Food and Water Security. Agricultural practices are also responsible for a growing number of threats to public health. Some of these are related to inadequate waste management, which has resulted in parasites and bacteria entering water supplies. Others are of entirely different origins and involve apparent transfer across species of pathogens that affect both animals and humans. The most recent and spectacular example is mad cow disease, known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, a neuro-degenerative condition that, in humans, is ultimately fatal. The first case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), the animal form of the disease, was identified in Southern England in November 1981. By the fall of 2000, an outbreak had also occurred in France, and isolated cases appeared in Germany, Switzerland, and Spain. More than one hundred deaths in Europe were attributed to what has come to be commonly called mad cow disease.

Improper manure management was the likely source of the outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 in Walkerton, Ontario, Canada. Other health risks associated with malfunctioning agroecosystems include periodic outbreaks of cryptosporidiosis, a parasitic disease that is spread by surface runoff contaminated by feces of infected cattle. This parasite causes fever and diarrhea in immunocompetent individuals and severe diarrhea and even death in immunocompromised individuals.


Ecosystem pathology in some cases can be reversed simply by removing the source of stress. In cases, for example, where ecosystem degradation is the result of point-source additions of nutrients or toxic chemicals, removal of these stresses may result in considerable recovery of ecosystem health. A classic case is Lake Washington (near Seattle, Washington). This lake had become highly anoxic (oxygen-depleted) owing to a sewage outfall entering the lake. Redirecting the sewage outfall away from the lake reversed many of the signs of pathology.

In cases where it is not feasible to remove the source of stress, more innovative engineering solutions have been tried. For example, in the Kyrönjoki and Lestijoki Rivers in western Finland, spring and fall runoff leads to sharp pulses of acidity. Spring runoff from snowmelt, which releases acid from tilled or dug soils, has been particularly damaging to fish, during the critical time of year for spawning. Fish reproduction is severely curtailed, if not all together eliminated in highly acidic water. Further there have been massive fish kills resulting from the highly acidic waters. One possible remedy is to replace the original drains which take runoff from the land to the rivers with new limed drains that can neutralize the acidity. This solution has been implemented on an experimental basis and appears to substantially reduce acidic runoff.

More radical treatments for damaged ecosystems involve "ecosystem surgery." In some cases, invading exotic vegetation (such as mangroves in Hawaii) have been removed from regions, and native vegetation has been replanted. In areas of North America where wetlands have been severely depleted owing to farming, urbanization, and industrial activity, efforts have been made to establish new wetlands.

More often than not, however, reversing ecosystem pathology is not possible. Efforts to restore the indigenous grasslands in the Jornada Experimental Range in the southwestern United States provide an example. Overgrazing by cattle has severely degraded the landscape and has lead to replacement of the native grasses by largely inedible shrubs, dominated by mesquite. Erosion by wind and episodic heavy rains have left areas between shrubs largely bare, and subsequently underlying sands have developed in dune-like fashion over a large part of the area. The resulting mesquite dunes have proven highly resistant to efforts to restore the native grasslands, although almost every intervention has been tried, including highly toxic defoliants (Agent Orange), fire, and bulldozing.

Even where it has been possible to restore some of the ecological functions of degraded ecosystems, and thus improve ecosystem health, the restoration seldom results in reestablishment of the pristine biotic community. The best that can be achieved in most cases is reestablishment of the key ecological functions that provide the required ecosystem services, such as the regulation of water, primary and secondary productivity, nutrient cycling, and pollination. In all such efforts, key indicators of ecosystem health (vigor, productivity, and resilience) are essential to monitor progress. Standard ecological indicators can be used for this purpose (e.g., measures of productivity, species composition, nutrient flows, soil fertility) along with socioeconomic and human health indicators.

Experience in efforts to restore highly damaged ecosystems suggests that ecosystem-health prevention is far more effective than restoration. For marine ecosystems, setting aside protective zones that afford a sanctuary for fish and wildlife has considerable promise. Many countries are adopting policies to establish such areas with the prospect that these healthy regions can serve as a reservoir for biota that have become depleted in the unprotected areas. Yet this remedy is not without its limits. Restoring ecosystem health is not simply a matter of replenishing lost or damaged biota. It is also a matter of reestablishing the complex interactions among ecosystem lifeforms. Having a ready source of healthy biota that could potentially recolonize damaged ecosystems is important, but it is only part of the solution.


Given the difficulties in reversing ecosystem degradation, and the many associated human health risks that arise with the loss of ecosystem health, the most effective approach is simply the prevention of ecosystem disruption. However, like many common-sense approaches, this is easier said than done. In both developed and developing countries there is a strong inclination to continue economic growth, even at the cost of severe environmental damage. Apart from selfish motivations, the argument is made that economic growth has many obvious health benefits, such as providing more efficient means of distributing food supplies, providing more plentiful food, and providing better health services and funding for research to improve standards of living. These are indeed benefits of economic development, and have led to substantial increases in health status worldwide.

However, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, the past is not necessarily the best guide to the future. The human population is at an alltime high, and associated pressures of human activity have led to increasing degradation of the earth's ecosystems. As ultimately healthy ecosystems are essential for life of all biota, including humans, current global and regional trends are ominous. Under these circumstances, a tradeoff between immediate material gains and long-term sustainability of humans on the planet may be the only option. If so, the solution to sustaining human health and ecosystem health becomes one of devising a new politic that places sustaining lifesupport systems as a precondition for betterment of the human condition.

David J. Rapport

(see also: Acid Rain; Ambient Air Quality [Air Pollution]; Ambient Water Quality; Biodiversity; Cholera; Ecological Footprint; Emerging Infectious Diseases; Global Burden of Disease; PCBs; Pesticides; Pollution; Vector-Borne Diseases )


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"Ecosystems." Encyclopedia of Public Health. . 21 Oct. 2016 <>.

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An ecosystem is all the living organisms in an area along with the nonliving, or abiotic, parts of their environment. The abiotic parts of an ecosystem include physical substances such as soil, air, and water; forces such as gravity and wind; and conditions such as temperature, light intensity, humidity, or salinity.

Components and Boundaries

Physical substances can include organic materials that were once alive, such as bits of wood from trees, rotting plant material, and animal wastes and dead organisms. The physical substance of an ecosystem also includes inorganic materials such as minerals , nitrogen, and water, as well as the overall landscape of mountains, plains, lakes, and rivers.

The organisms and the physical environment of an ecosystem interact with one another. The atmosphere, water, and soil allow life to flourish and limit what kind of life can survive. For example, a freshwater lake provides a home for certain fish and aquatic plants. Yet, the same lake would kill plants and animals adapted to a saltwater estuary.

Just as the environment affects organisms, organisms affect their environment. Lichens break down rock. Trees block sunlight, change the acidity and moisture content of soil, and release oxygen into the atmosphere. Elephants may uproot whole trees in order to eat their leaves, beavers dam streams and create meadows, and rabbits nibble grasses right down to the ground.

Ecosystems are not closed; in fact, an ecosystem's boundaries are usually fuzzy. A pond, for example, blends little by little into marsh, and then into a mixture of open meadow and brush. A stream brings nutrients and organisms from a nearby forest and carries away materials to other ecosystems. Even large ecosystems interact with other ecosystems. Seeds blow from place to place, animals migrate, and flowing water and air carry organismsand their products and remainsfrom ecosystem to ecosystem.

All ecosystems taken together make up the biosphere, all living organisms on the earth and their physical environment. The biosphere differs from other ecosystems in having fixed boundaries. The biosphere covers the whole surface of the earth. It begins underground and extends into the highest reaches of the atmosphere.

Feeding Relations

Ecologists divide the living, biotic part of an ecosystem into two groups of organisms: the autotrophs and the heterotrophs. Autotrophs, also called primary producers, are organisms that make their own food. The vast majority of autotrophs (literally self-nourishers) are either plants, algae, or bacteria that use sunlight to make sugars from carbon dioxide in the air through photosynthesis.

Heterotrophs (which means "nourished by others"), also called consumers, are organisms that consume other organisms. Heterotrophs include animals, protists, and bacteria, or fungi. Animals that eat plants, such as deer and caterpillars, are called herbivores. Animals that eat other animals, such as mountain lions and wasps, are called carnivores.

Decomposers are heterotrophs that feed from the carcasses of dead animals or dead plants. If they are animals, such as millipedes, lobsters, starfish, clams, and catfish, scientists sometimes call them scavengers. Many animals, including starfish, lions, hyenas, and humans, change from carnivore to scavenger and back, depending on what food source is available.

Some of the most important decomposers are nearly invisible. These are the detritivores: fungi, bacteria, and other organisms that feed on the remains of dead plants and other organisms. Each year, detritivores break down the remains of millions of tons of dead plant and animal material, recycling nutrients back into ecosystems around the world.

Because animals eat one another, they can be linked in food chains, where, for example, a hawk eats a snake, which has eaten a ground squirrel, which has eaten a seed. Every ecosystem has numerous food chains that interlink to form a food web . A food web can change over time. In one year, a population explosion of oak moths means that insect predators focus on oak moth caterpillars. In another year, oak moths are rare, and predators eat a diversity of other herbivores.

Ecologists assign the organisms in a food web to different trophic levels, depending on where they get their energy. Plants, which get their energy directly from the sun, are in the first trophic level; caterpillars, which get their energy from plants, are in the second; birds that eat caterpillars are in the third. Predators that eat the birds would be in a fourth trophic level. Predators may eat at more than one level. (Humans are an example.)

Productivity and Nutrient Cycling

Every ecosystem is unique, yet similar ecosystems share fundamental characteristics, including climate, productivity, total mass of living organisms, and numbers of species. For example, tropical rain forests have higher species diversity than temperate forests.

In the same way, marshes all have high productivity and deserts all have low productivity. Primary productivity is the amount of energy captured by primary producers during photosynthesis on a square meter of land each year. One factor that determines productivity is latitude and its effect on sunshine. A square meter of land near the North Pole, for example, receives about 700,000 kcals (kilocalories) of sunshine per year, while the same area at the equator receives nearly 2.5 times that much sunshine. So all things being equal, the tropical region has the potential for higher productivity. However, even in the same latitude, primary productivity varies enormously from ecosystem to ecosystem. A marsh, for example, is twice as productive as a temperate forest, four times as productive as a wheat field, and thirty-five times as productive as a desert.

Another important characteristic of ecosystems is total biomass, the dry weight of all the organisms living in it. Rain forests have more organisms per square meter and therefore more total biomass than other ecosystems, more even than the superproductive marshes.

On land, the biomass of plants is usually greater than the biomass of herbivores, which is greater than the biomass of carnivores. The reason for this is that every chemical process releases energy in the form of heat. So producers can use only part of the energy from the sun to build their bodies; the rest is lost as heat. In the same way, consumers can use only part of the energy in plants to build their own bodies; the rest is lost as heat. Each trophic level passes along only about 10 percent of the energy from the one below. This generalization is called the 10 percent law.

The 10 percent law explains why ecosystems have so few trophic levels and so few individuals at the highest trophic levels. If on a square meter of land, primary consumers store 15,000 kcal/year, herbivores will be able to consume only about 1,500 kcal/year from that meter, and herbivore-eating carnivores will only get 150 kcals, about as many calories as are in a cup of spaghetti. Carnivores must, therefore, roam over large areas to obtain enough to eat.

All sunlight energy eventually escapes from the biosphere in the form of heat. In contrast, the biosphere constantly recycles water, carbon, and other materials. As materials move from one trophic level to another, they may change form, but they rarely escape from the biosphere entirely. A single carbon atom in a fingernail may have been, at different times, part of an apple, part of a trilobite in the ocean, part of a mountain range, part of a dinosaur, or part of the oil in a Texas oil well. Carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other materials all pass through many formsboth biotic and abioticin a system called a biogeochemical cycle. The biogeochemical cycles of materials such as carbon and oxygen involve the whole biosphere.

see also Biogeochemical Cycles; Community; Desert; Estuaries; Forest, Boreal; Forest, Temperate; Forest, Tropical; Landscape Ecology; Plankton; Population Dynamics

Jennie Dusheck


Brewer, Richard. The Science of Ecology, 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: W. B. Saunders, Co., 1988.

Kareiva, Peter M., ed. Exploring Ecology and Its Applications: Readings from American Scientists. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, Inc., 198297.

Molles, Manuel C. Ecology: Concepts and Applications. Boston: WCB/McGraw-Hill, 1999.

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An ecosystem consists of a biological community and the abiotic factors on which it relies. These factors include sunlight, water, elements, and minerals. Energy flows one way through an ecosystem, starting as sunlight absorbed by primary producers, passing through several levels of consumers, and eventually dissipating as heat. Materials cycle through an ecosystem by alternating between biotic and abiotic stages.

The sun is the ultimate source of energy for most ecosystems. The distribution of solar energy around the world is dictated by the position of the sun and air and water movement. The variation in solar energy causes variation in temperature and rainfall in time and space, which in turn influences the type of ecosystem found in each place.

Ecosystems contain interconnected food chains known as food webs through which energy flows. Each food chain consists of a sequence of predator-prey relationships at different trophic levels. Each predator species can have more than one prey species and vice versa. Primary producers, which provide 99 percent of all organic material, are photosynthetic plants and algae. Primary consumers, or herbivores, eat primary producers; secondary consumers, or carnivores, eat herbivores. Tertiary consumers eat other carnivores. Most ecosystems contain no more than two carnivorous trophic levels, because only about 10 percent of the energy contained in the biomass at one level is passed on to the next.

Detrivores, or decomposers, form yet another trophic level by scavenging or decomposing dead organic material. Decomposers are capable of gaining energy from materials that no other animals can, such as cellulose or nitrogenous waste, and may consume up to 90 percent of primary production (energy produced by plants) in forests.

Trophic levels are characterized by their productivity. Gross productivity is the rate at which energy is assimilated by organisms. Gross productivity minus the amount of energy left over after the cost of metabolic activity is net productivity. Net productivity can be measured as accumulated bio-mass, which is the total dry weight of organic materials, and is the energy that is available to organisms at the next trophic level. The difference between gross and net productivity limits the number of trophic levels in an ecosystem. At some point, there is not enough residual energy to support a healthy population of predators.

The loss of energy at each trophic level would seem to dictate a pyramidal structure in which each trophic level contains less biomass than the one beneath it. However, productivity is a function of both biomass and reproduction rate. For example, a phytoplankton population often reproduces fast enough to support a larger population of zooplankton.

Whole ecosystems can also be measured for their productivity. Algal beds and reefs, due to their rapid reproduction rates, are the most productive ecosystems on Earth. Temperate forests, however, contain the most bio-mass. Swamps and marshes rank as high as tropical rain forests in productivity, whereas the desert and the open ocean rank the lowest. Cultivated land has only average productivity.

Materials flow through ecosystems in biogeochemical cycles. These cycles include the atmosphere, the lithosphere (Earth's crust), and the hydrosphere (bodies of water). Decomposers play an important role in material cycling by separating inorganic materials, such as nitrogen, from organic compounds. A generalized biogeochemical cycle consists of available and unavailable organic components and available and unavailable inorganic components.

Inorganic materials become organic through assimilation and photo-synthesis. Organic materials become inorganic due to respiration, decomposition, and excretion. Sedimentation causes inorganic material to become unavailable, whereas erosion releases it. Fossilization stores organic material as fossil fuel, whereas erosion and combustion release fossil fuels as inorganic material.

The water cycle plays a significant role in terrestrial ecosystems because it is the major component, by weight, of all organisms. Water evaporates from oceans, rivers, and lakes and transpires from plants into the atmosphere. Precipitation occurs over land when the atmospheric water condenses, followed by runoff and percolation through the soil into ground water. Eventually, the water returns to the atmosphere by evaporation or transpiration, but in the meantime it can be assimilated by organisms.

Nitrogen also plays a vital role in ecosystems because it is necessary for the synthesis of both amino and nucleic acids, which makeup proteins and DNA. In order for plants to assimilate nitrogen, it must be in the inorganic form of nitrate (NO3). Bacteria convert ammonia (NH3) or ammonium (NH4) into nitrate by nitrification, which requires the addition of oxygen.

Available Unavailable
Organic Organisms Coal, petroleum oil, natural gas
Inorganic Atmosphere
Soil Minerals in rocks

Plants convert nitrates into ammonium in order to synthesize organic compounds. Decomposers complete the cycle by ammonification, the separation of inorganic nitrogen from dead organic material. Nitrogen is lost from this cycle by denitrification, in which bacteria break down nitrates into oxygen and nitrogen in poorly aerated soils. Nitrogen is added to the cycle by nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which incorporate atmospheric nitrogen into organic compounds.

The fundamental element in organic molecules is carbon. Plants assimilate carbon from the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide, which is broken down during photosynthesis to produce oxygen and carbohydrate. Respiration in plants and animals reverses this process by using carbohydrate to fuel the conversion of oxygen into carbon dioxide. Thus, carbon may be thought of as cycling between gaseous and organic states.

Phosphorus is necessary for the synthesis of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) and nitrogen-containing molecules called nucleotides. Phosphorus is separated from organic compounds by decomposers or excreted by animals as phosphates. Plants and algae then assimilate phosphates from the soil and water to produce organic compounds.

Humans affect the function of ecosystems in many ways. One effect is the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, which was negligible until industrialization. Another is the diversion of water from rivers and ground water into reservoirs. Industrial fertilization has increased the level of phosphates in many waterways, causing blooms of phytoplankton that choke the oxygen out of the water. The long-term effects of human influence on ecosystems remain to be determined.

see also Biomes; Habitat.

Brian R. West


Curtis, Helena, and N. Sue Barnes. Biology, 5th ed. New York: Worth Publishing, 1989.

Pianka, Eric R. Evolutionary Ecology. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994.

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An ecosystem (or ecological system) is a collection of communities of organisms and the environment in which they live. Ecosystems can vary greatly in size. Some examples of small ecosystems are tidal pools, a home garden, or the stomach of an individual cow. Larger ecosystems might encompass lakes, agricultural fields, or stands of forests. Landscape-scale ecosystems encompass larger regions, and may include different terrestrial (land) and aquatic (water) communities. Ultimately, all of Earth's life and its physical environment could be considered to represent an entire ecosystem, known as the biosphere.

Ecologists often invent boundaries for ecosystems, depending on the particular needs of their work. (Ecologists are scientists who study the relationships of organisms with their living and nonliving environments.) For example, depending on the specific interests of an ecologist, an ecosystem might be defined as the shoreline vegetation around a lake, or the entire lake itself, or the lake plus all the land around it. Because all of these units consist of organisms and their environment, they can properly be considered to be ecosystems.

The raw materials of an ecosystem

All ecosystems have a few basic characteristics in common. They use energy (usually provided by sunlight) to build complex chemical compounds out of simple materials. At the level of plants, for example, carbon dioxide and water vapor are combined with the energy of sunlight to produce complex carbohydrates, such as starches (this process is known as photosynthesis). As plants (producers) are consumed by other organisms, more complex substances are manufactured in their bodies, and energy is passed upward through the food web.

The flow of energy in an ecosystem occurs in only one direction: it is always consumed by higher levels of organisms in a food web. As a result, each level of a food web contains less energy than the levels below it. By contrast, nutrients can flow in any direction in an ecosystem. When plants and animals die, the compounds of which they are formed are decomposed by microorganisms (decomposers), returned to the environment, and are recycled for use again by other organisms.

One of the greatest challenges facing humans and their civilization is to develop an understanding of the fundamentals of ecosystem organization, how they function and how they are structured. This knowledge

is absolutely necessary if humans are to design systems that allow for the continued use of the products and services of ecosystems. Humans are sustained by ecosystems, and no alternative to this relationship exists.

[See also Biosphere; Gaia hypothesis ]

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Systems are assemblages of interacting objects that are linked by transfers of energy and matter, behave in specific ways under certain conditions, and are often governed by cybernetic controls that involve the flow of information through positive and negative feedback . In 1935 British ecologist Arthur Tansley (1871-1955) described functioning organisms and their physical environment as the "basic units of nature on the face of the Earth" and referred to them by the term "ecosystem." The components are both living (within the biotic realm) and nonliving (abiotic). The biotic components comprise the communities of organisms formed by interacting populations. While ecosystems are real, functioning places, they are also the abstractions, or models, that are developed to characterize the function and potentially predict the behavior of these real places.

One important aspect of ecosystems is the definition of their boundaries. In some cases this is superficially obvious. A pond can be thought of as an ecosystem with the boundaries between the water and the terrestrial environment forming a shoreline, the interface between the water surface and the atmosphere defining the top, and the lower extent of wet sediments in the ooze at its bottom as recognizable surfaces. Even these, however, are not quite as clear-cut as they may seem when viewed in closer detail. The shoreline is much longer when measured with centimeter segments than with a meter stick. The water surface boundary has a layer of air saturated by water vapor that may or may not be considered to be part of the ecosystem; and the bottom could be complicated by the presence of the inlet from an underground spring. Boundaries are even harder to define within an expanse of seemingly continuous grassland or forest, and are therefore at times assigned in an arbitrary manner by researchers.

Size alone does not necessarily help resolve the question. In some cases the interactions within an ecosystem occur over many kilometers, and the boundaries are formed by decreasing probabilities of transfers of matter and energy with other parts of the system. On the other hand, sometimes very small units can be thought of as ecosystems. The moss-covered back of a sloth, a pile of bear dung, or the surface of your skin can be treated theoretically as a microcosm or miniature ecosystem. The frequent indistinctness of boundaries, and the fact that energy and matter enters and leaves the ecosystem, makes them open systems. Even if energy gains and losses are in balance, it is more appropriate to describe an ecosystem as a steady state rather than equilibrium, because equilibrium (which is only possible in a completely isolated, thermodynamically closed system), does not adequately model ecosystems. They are always dynamically interacting with adjacent ecosystems to form a complex landscape.

One of the most powerful tools emerging from the ecosystem concept is the development of models that abstract the structure and function of the real world. Pictures and graphs describe physical arrangement of objects. Flow charts characterize highly probable pathways for energy or nutrients to pass through the system. In the case of energy, this flow is a one-way street with its ultimate dissipation outside of the boundaries as heat and entropy. Nutrients, however, can be retained and recycled within the ecosystem. The extent to which this happens is one measure of stability.

The beauty of ecosystem models is that they can be quantified. This allows them to be analyzed mathematically on computers and ultimately, if the models are based on real, natural behaviors, they can be used to predict the future of ecosystems. The rapidly developing field of general systems theory can be applied to ecosystems resulting in insights about how they function. These tools also allow ecologists to make predictions about the behavior of ecosystems when disturbed, stressed, or altered by evolutionary time, questions that society is finding pressing with increasing pollution, global warming, and other environmental threats.

see also Agricultural Ecosystems; Aquatic Ecosystems; Biome; Coastal Ecosystems; Ecology, Energy Flow; Ecology, Fire; Ecology, History of; Plant Community Processes.

W. Dean Cocking


Tansley, Arthur G. "The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms." Ecology 16, no. 3 (1935): 284-307.

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ecosystem (ecological system) Term first used by A. G. Tansley (1935) to describe the interdependence of species in the living world (the biome or community) with one another and with their non-living (abiotic) environment. Fundamental concepts include the flow of energy via food-chains and food-webs, and the cycling of nutrients biogeochemically (see BIOGEOCHEMICAL CYCLE). Ecosystem principles can be applied at all scales—thus principles that apply to an ephemeral pond, for example, apply equally to a lake, an ocean, or the whole planet. In Russian and central European literature ‘biogeocoenosis’ describes the same concept.

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ecosystem (ecological system) A term first used by A. G. Tansley (in 1935) to describe the interdependence of species in the living world (the biome or community) with one another and with their non-living (abiotic) environment. Fundamental concepts include the flow of energy via food-chains and food-webs, and the cycling of nutrients biogeochemically. Ecosystem principles can be applied at all scales; thus, principles that apply to an ephemeral pond, for example, apply equally to a lake, an ocean, or the whole planet. In Russian and central European literature ‘biogeocoenosis’ describes the same concept.

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ecosystem A biological community and the physical environment associated with it. Nutrients pass between the different organisms in an ecosystem in definite pathways; for example, nutrients in the soil are taken up by plants, which are then eaten by herbivores, which in turn may be eaten by carnivores (see food chain). Organisms are classified on the basis of their position in an ecosystem into various trophic levels. Nutrients and energy move round ecosystems in loops or cycles (in the case above, for example, nutrients are returned to the soil via animal wastes and decomposition). See carbon cycle; nitrogen cycle.

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ecosystem(ecological system) A term first used by A. G.Tansley (in 1935) to describe a discrete unit that consists of living and non-living parts, interacting to form a stable system. Fundamental concepts include the flow of energy via food-chains and food-webs, and the cycling of nutrients biogeochemically (see biogeochemical cycle). Ecosystem principles can be applied at all scales. Principles that apply to an ephemeral pond, for example, apply equally to a lake, an ocean, or the whole planet. In Russian and central European literature ‘biogeocoenosis’ describes the same concept.

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ecosystem (ecological system) A term first used by A. G. Tansley in 1935 to describe a natural unit that consists of living and non-living parts, interacting to form a stable system. Fundamental concepts include the flow of energy via food chains and food webs, and the cycling of nutrients biogeochemically. Ecosystem principles can be applied at all scales—thus principles that apply e.g. to an ephemeral pond apply equally to a lake, an ocean, or the whole planet. In Russian and central European literature ‘biogeocoenosis’ describes the same concept.

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ecosystem Interacting community of organisms and their physical environment. It includes all organic life in a given area along with the soil, water and other inorganic components of their habitat, and all the ecological interactions that take place within and between the organic and inorganic. It is a complete ecosystem only if it can incorporate energy into organic compounds and pass it from organism to organism, and if it recycles elements for re-use. Examples of ecosystems include meadows, woodland and ponds.

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ec·o·sys·tem / ˈekōˌsistəm; ˈēkō-/ • n. Ecol. a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment.

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ecosystem: see ecology.

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ecosystembedim, brim, crim, dim, glim, grim, Grimm, gym, him, hymn, Jim, Kim, limb, limn, nim, prim, quim, rim, scrim, shim, Sim, skim, slim, swim, Tim, trim, vim, whim •poem • goyim • cherubim • Hasidim •seraphim, teraphim •Elohim • Sikkim • Joachim • prelim •forelimb • Muslim • Blenheim •paynim • minim • pseudonym •homonym • anonym • synonym •eponym • acronym • antonym •metonym • Antrim • megrim •Leitrim • pilgrim • Purim • interim •passim • maxim • kibbutzim •Midrashim • literatim •seriatim, verbatim •victim •system • ecosystem • subsystem •item • Ashkenazim

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