What is ecology? What's more, why should we care about it? If these are the questions that keep you awake at night, then you have come to right place. The first question is easy to answer: ecology is the study of interactions between organisms and their environments. "Interactions" is the key word here. Ecologists do not only study organisms; they also study how organisms interact with other organisms and how they interact with the nonliving parts of their environments, like chemicals, nutrients, habitats, and so on.
As you might suspect, ecology is not as simple as it sounds. The range and type of interactions that organisms can have with each other and with their environments are quite large and complex. Think about how many interactions you have with other organisms, including with other humans, and with your environment every day, and then multiply that number by a grubzillion. Yes, a grubzillion. If you think that it isn't a word, it is now.
Ecologists study interactions at multiple levels. Some ecologists focus on how individual organisms respond to their environment. Other ecologists are more interested in how organisms of the same species interact with each other in populations. Still others spend their days examining how whole populations interact with other populations in a community. And, at the highest level, some ecologists focus on the big picture, studying the interactions between all of the living and nonliving elements in a given area, or ecosystem.
In this unit, we will explore ecological interactions at the population, community, and ecosystem levels.
Now, what about the second, and vastly more critical, question: why should we care about ecology?
We could attempt to answer this question by telling you heart-rending stories about human activities that are causing species extinctions all over the world. Instead, we will focus on something closer to home, and heart, for most people: food! That’s right, if you care about food—real, scrum-diddly-umptious food—then you should care about ecology.
Here’s one reason why: every year, more than 94 million tons of ocean life (like fish, aquatic plants, and so on) are "harvested" from around the world for human consumption and use (FAO, 2010).1 Billions of people rely on these harvests to sustain life. However, poor understanding of marine ecology can result in disaster.
One of the most well-known of these disasters occurred off of the coast of California in Monterey Bay in the mid-1950s. At the time, this bay was one of the most productive fisheries in the world—a veritable hotspot for sardines. However, before 1960, harvests had plummeted, and, by 1973, the last sardine cannery in Monterey closed its doors forever. (However, there are still museum tours on Tuesdays that are pretty awesome.)
What was the reason for this fishing calamity? Unfortunately, the fishing industry did not apply common ecological sense in their decisions. Sardines were removed from the bay faster than they could reproduce, resulting in a population crash and the end of an economy. You can read all about it John Steinbeck’s famous novel, Cannery Row.
Fortunately, the fishing industry is now a bit more careful and uses a small army of ecologists that constantly works to find answers to important questions like
These are just some of the heavy questions in ecology that need good answers; people’s lives and livelihoods depend on it.
As you read through all of this ecology goodness, you should remember that ecology is a study of interactions. Concentrate on identifying what the interactions are and why they matter. If you do this, we guarantee that your understanding of and appreciation for ecology will increase dramatically.*
*Results may vary depending on current levels of understanding and appreciation. If your middle name is Ecology, you might not learn much.