One of the most important yet underappreciated branches of life science, ecology has seven levels of complexity, beginning with microbial organisms and stretching up to entire planet ecologies. The results of ecological research crop up in almost every scientific field that deals with life, from microbiology to terraforming other planets.
Getting to know these seven levels and what they involve are an important step in understanding the world around us. Each type of ecology is interconnected, with community ecology bridging the scope from small scale to larger areas.
What follows are each type, what they involve, and how they piece together with the other ecological fields to form one cohesive whole.
Types of Ecology
1. Behavioral Ecology
Sometimes referred to as organism ecology, this field studies organisms at their most basic levels. How an organism adapts to its surroundings or how its behavior evolves are important focal points for a behavioral ecologist.
Understanding how an organism adapts and functions is important to understanding the organism itself, and behavioral ecology often relies on microbial ecological data while providing valuable information for population ecology and above.
2. Community Ecology
A community in ecological terms is defined as all populations living in a specified area regardless of species. The focus of community ecology is to study the interactions between different species and how a change in one population affects the rest of the community.
Some of the factors examined in animal species are migration patterns, space relations, and trophic relationships. The more complex the species, the more complex the observed interactions will be.
To constitute a community, there needs to be at least two different species. Thus, two species of fish in a tank constitute a community.
Of course, actual communities tend to contain a large number of populations, both flora and fauna, microscopic and macroscopic. The exact size of the community and what species are included may be defined by the examiner rather than any physical boundaries.
The types of interactions may be broken down based upon the populations being studied. For example, complementary gardening was developed by studying the natural qualities of certain plants to attract or repel certain types of insect or animal.
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The amount of water necessary for each species, root depth and spread, and what nutrients the plants introduced or removed from the soil were all taken into account.
As a result of understanding how a community of plants and beneficial insects may be optimized, families using complementary gardening may produce more food and flowers per acre without the need for pesticides or herbicides.
Another important aspect of community ecology is understanding how a community evolves and changes over time.
Grasping the balance of predation and symbiosis in a particular community helps scientists understand the risks posed by an invading species or even introduce a new species to replace one which has been lost due to excessive predation, disease, or other factors. Many other forms of ecology are built upon the work presented by community ecologists.
3. Ecosystem Ecology
This form of ecology studies the interactions of both biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) components of an ecosystem. Such topics as soil composition and climate are examined to see how they affect the community.
Not only are interactions and dependencies between the biotic and abiotic examined, but how the abiotic is affected by the presence of the biotic.
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4. Global Ecology
Perhaps the broadest form of ecology, global ecology examines biomes and ecosystems on a worldwide scale. Climate, environmental geography, and other factors are taken into account, as well as organisms of all sizes.
The interactions of populations, their impact on the environment, and their fundamental interconnectedness are all studied to gain a better understanding of how the entire planet retains balance.
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5. Human Ecology
This is a rather unique branch of ecology, as it focuses primarily upon humans and how they interact with various ecosystems. Not only does this include the question of why humans have evolved with certain traits, it also focuses the majority of the time on how humans affect the world around them and both the positive and negative impacts they have on global ecology.
By understanding how humans affect the delicate balance of nature, it is hoped that ways to make mankind more environmentally conscious may be developed and solutions to the damage we’ve already done may be mitigated through our understanding of community and ecosystem ecology.
6. Microbial Ecology
Heading down to the cellular level, microbial ecology focuses primarily on the first two kingdoms, namely Monera and Potista. Similar to other types of ecology, the relationship between various microbes and their environment are studied.
While primarily used in phylogeny (the study of evolutionary connections and the origin of life), this field is also important for medical fields and as a building block for many macroscopic forms of ecology.
One of the key focal points in this field is the composition of both DNA and RNA structures and the information they hold.
7. Population Ecology
Right at the middle level of the ecological food chain, population ecology takes the information garnered by behavioral ecologists and applies it to a group of the same species. This group, called a population, must dwell together at the same time, as longitudinal studies aren’t generally a focus.
Numerous factors such as population density, size, migratory habits, and special interactions are all studied. Not only does this give a better insight into what makes a population grow and shrink, but also how changes in size affect other aspects.
Other important social details such as mating rituals, territorial habits, and the raising of young may also be documented by ecologists during the course of their research.