By Shelby Wells
Hi everyone! Today we will discuss one of my favorite fields of science: Ecology. It’s likely you’ve heard the word before, maybe in a science class or just in passing. Take a moment to think about the word. Any ideas of what it could mean? Take a piece of paper and take a moment to jot down some of your thoughts.
Done? Great! First, let’s look at the word. The first step is to split up those syllables. Eco comes from the word ecosystem; and ology means the study of something. Putting them back together, the world translates to the study of the ecosystem. More precisely, ecology refers to the study of the interactions between everything in an ecosystem.
An ecosystem is all the living and nonliving things in a particular area. Think about a place outside you’ve been—could be a park, river, mountain—anywhere! Again, grab a piece of paper and draw a line down the center. On one side of the line write down “biotic” and on the other side write down “abiotic.” Start a running list of all the biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) features that you saw in that place.
I thought of a place in Southern Oregon where I used to go hiking. There was this beautiful reservoir that the county converted into a conservation area. Up above is my list of all the biotic and abiotic factors I could think of in the moment. Maybe your list looks similar!?
So what does ecology look at? Well, everything! Ecology recognizes that everything in an ecosystem is connected. Ecologists study the relationships between organisms and their environment. These are connections to both abiotic and biotic factors and serve different functions.
Take salmon for example. As they swim, salmon interact with their physical environment—water, soil, pH, shoals. These are the non-living connections or abiotic. They also connect with living creatures like the bears that eat them or worms that they eat. In other words, biotic. In ecology, we study these connections and what they can tell us about the ecosystem as a whole.
Try thinking about all the things you interact with. Family, food, etc… Comment down below some of these interactions. Include whether they are biotic (living) or abiotic (non-living) factors.
Now, not all relationships and interactions are the same. This is where it gets fun! There are three main types of relationships that organisms can have with one another. The Big 3 of species interactions include: Predation, Competition, and Mutualism.
If you’ve ever watched Blue Planet, you’ve seen some nail-biting predation instances. You know the one. The camera zooms in on the cute sea otter which swims frantically away from the killer whale. Dramatics aside, predation is an important part of nature: we all gotta eat. Whether that food is vegetation or meat, predation is a natural part of life.
Predation involves something eating parts or the whole of another organism. For example, a wolf eats a calf or a mouse nibbles on some vegetation nearby. In predation, energy moves up the food web. This is a win-lose situation because one organism gains energy, while the other dies.
Herbivores are those organisms that eat vegetation or plants. Carnivorous are those organisms that eat meat. Omnivores eat both.
Try labeling these animals with what type of consumer they are:
A) Cows eat grass and other vegetation so that makes them herbivores.
B) We can eat everything! Though some diets exclude certain things like being vegetarian. But that’s a choice, so when classifying humans, we like to think that naturally we can eat everything.
C) Wolves are carnivores; they eat deer, rabbits, and other mammals. They can also scavenge on other kills.
D) Bears are omnivores and depending on the species they might opt for a diet of berries instead of meat.
Yes! You’ve got it! Let’s move on!
Competition is the relationship that involves two species coming into the same area and fighting for resources. Resources can be space, food, water, light, or other necessities. Competition comes as a result of overlapping niches. A niche is where an organism can inhabit (its home).
Due to pressures, a species may move into another area, causing a clash between groups. This is a lose-lose situation because both species will deplete valuable resources. To maintain stability, one of the species will either die out or evolve to live in a different niche.
Example: Cheetahs and lions competing for the same antelope and gazelle prey.
Mutualism (in my opinion) is one of the most amazing relationships to ever exist! It is a fantastic process where organisms evolve with one another. Sometimes they evolve so closely that organisms become dependent on one another for survival. During mutualism, two species interact with one another in a way that helps both to survive. This is a win-win situation where both organisms positively impact one another.
For instance, the cleaner wrasse and the reef fish have long since benefited one another. The cleaner wrasse acts as a dentist, eating the infections and parasites off the reef fish. It’s an amazing thing to see! This adorable small fish trusts the big fish enough to swim inside their mouths. This connection is a win-win situation where the fish are healthy and the cleaner wrasse eat.
Now, that’s all for today! Let’s see if you can identify the interaction happening in each situation:
A) A bear consumes a salmon.
B) An oxpecker lands on the back of a zebra to eat ticks and other parasitic and nuisance insects.
C) The barred owl moves into the territory of the spotted owl. As a result, the spotted owl has less nesting sites.
D) Digestive bacteria in the stomach of humans.
E) White-tailed deer graze on grass in a field.
A) Predation (win-lose; the fish gets eaten and the bear gets a full belly)
B) Mutualism (win-win; the oxpecker gets food and the zebra gets a pest-free pelt)
C) Competition (lose-lose; both organisms fight with one another. They reduce the available food/nesting sites for everyone)
D) Mutualism (win-win; the bacteria get food and we get things moving through us as well as food)
E) Predation (win-lose; the deer gain energy and the grass dies)
I hope you learned a lot about ecology and studying interactions! Comment down below an example of predation, competition, or mutualism!