The different Disciplines of Ecology

Before I became an English nerd, I used to be extremely interested in science. I was fascinated with bugs and often kept a collection of live ones, despite my mother’s protests, and was always found playing in the dirt and digging up rocks and nature’s other treasures. This was the beginning of the study of ecology, which is the study of how living things and their environment interact with one another.

Within the study of ecology are various disciplines, that is, different focuses on the subject. Each discipline concentrates on different numbers of entities and processes in the system.

Ecophysiology and behavioral ecology are the most simplistic of disciplines. Ecophysiology, also known as environmental physiology, studies the adaptation of an individual’s physiology (the mechanical, physical, and biochemical functions) to environmental conditions. Behavioral ecology studies the ecological and evolutionary basis for animal behavior, and the roles of behavior which makes it possible for an animal to adjust to its environment. An example of this can be the whale, though this is a debated issue. Some scientists say that whales once came from the ocean and adapted to land, then once again returned to the ocean, losing its legs and changing other aspects of its physical makeup.

Population ecology, also known as autecology, is the study of the populations of a single species and how they interact with the environment. Thomas Malthus, one of the first theorists on the subject, first introduced the “survival of the fittest” concept which was later studied and expanded on by Charles Darwin. In this model, Malthus hypothesized that sooner or later the natural resources organisms need to survive will be limited, causing the creatures to compete for it.

Synecology or community ecology focuses on the interactions between different populations of species within an ecological community. An example of this could be ants versus spiders in the forests of Massachusetts. Interactions between these groups are determined by specific genotype and phenotype characteristics. The genotype has to do with the genetic makeup of an organism, while the phenotype is the physical characteristics.

Ecosystem ecology studies how ecosystems work by researching their system of chemicals, bedrock, soil, plants, and animals. Many ecosystem studies have been done on the rain forest, for example.

Lastly we have landscape ecology, which is the most complex discipline of ecology. It examines the processes and relationships of multiple ecosystems or very large geographic areas that may or may not be located anywhere near each other. This is how landscape ecologists can see how an environment’s structures affect an organism’s population at the landscape level, as well as how the landscape acts as a function to them as a whole. This study may include forests, rangelands, wetlands, moving bodies of waters, lakes, and urban environmental settings.

With the study of ecology, people can learn everything there is to know about an organism and its relationship to its environment. It is amazing to see all the different connections that can be made. As a child I may not have realized the magnitude of what I was doing, though many great things can be discovered through simple curiosity.