Intro to Ecology Pt. 2: What is Ecology?

Intro to Ecology Pt. 2: What is Ecology?

When studying the life sciences, there are a lot of in-depth concepts to take in. Depending on the the type of science you are studying, biology vs. evolution, for example, you may even have to learn a handful of mathematical formulas to fully appreciate the material. Here, we are just having a light-hearted overview of the life sciences, so a light serving of sativa will do just fine.

In my experience, sativa helps me to not get lost in wordy texts (reading that is not broken up by graphics/tables or formulas) and keep my mind sharp and able to take in all relevant information. Grinding about 60mg (less than 1/4 of a 1g bud) of sativa and smoking just a small pinch of that for over a 3-5hr period is perfect for maintaining a healthy attention span for learning.

Black Flower Science Co. does not claim to be a medical professional and does not offer recommendations as a substitute for medical advice. All advice and recommendations are based on personal experience of the benefits of medical marijuana. If you are experiencing severe or declining mental health symptoms, please seek the advice of a medical professional.

In every habitat across the globe, whether it is in the land, water, or even in the air, you will find that species must interact with one another in some way, shape or form. Whether this interaction is positive or negative depends on the types of species they are, the number of animals in the area, and a myriad of other factors.

These interactions fall under a branch of biology that continues to show us brand-new wonders every day. This branch of biological study is known as “ecology.”

What is ecology? To put it as simply as possible, ecology is the interaction between organisms and their environment. That’s it! It’s not restricted to vertebrate megafauna (large-bodied species) either. No, it extends to the plant and microscopic life as well!

Ecology is comprised of a vast array of concepts and biological mechanisms that define the relationships between all sorts of species groups. For instance, a predator may interact with a prey species in a completely different way than it would with another predator, or with a plant.

Further, a terrestrial mammal may experience completely different types of ecological dynamics than a marine invertebrate would! To answer your question, “What is ecology?” let’s jump-start this series with some basic concepts of this science.

Table of Contents

The Dynamics of Species Communities
Core Mechanisms That Drive Ecology
How Niches Help Species to Stay in Their Lanes

The Dynamics of Species Communities

The first thing we must establish before moving forward in our understanding of ecology is the answer to the question, “What is an ecosystem?” Why does this question matter? Well, no species exists in a vacuum. Rather, every living thing on this planet must share space with one another. This means that they will be living alongside species that may or may not be related to them.

Sharing space with another species can take any of the following forms:

  • Sympatry: This is when a species shares not only a habitat, but the same ecological niche with another species.
  • Parapatry: Two species may share a habitat, but occupy completely different niches within that habitat. For instance, a Western grey squirrel is parapatric with a mule deer, but spends more time in trees than a mule deer would (or could… at all. If you see a mule deer climbing a tree someday, hit me up).
  • Allopatric: Two or more species may live in a mountainous area, so they share the same geographic region, but they are separated by a natural barrier. One species may live on one side of the mountain, and the other lives on the opposite side, occupying both different niches and habitats.

When all of these different organisms come together into one space, the results can be absolutely astounding. This is what we call “biodiversity.” The richness – officially referred to as “abundance” – of a particular habitat, measured by the number of species the area holds.

The Amazon Rainforest, for example, is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. It is home to 1 out of every 10 known species on the planet, amounting to over 40,000 flora species (this means “plant” species) and more than 5,300 freshwater fish, reptiles, and other vertebrates. (Non-plant organisms are known as “fauna.”)

Photo by Isai Ramos on Unsplash

Core Mechanisms That Drive Ecology

So, what is the ecology of a place like the Amazon versus somewhere smaller and with fewer animals, like Yosemite National Park?

1. Population Growth

A population is a group of one species that lives in a given habitat. (There are different types of populations known as “subpopulations” and “metapopulations,” which we can dig a bit deeper into later.)

As a species’ population grows, the individual animals may have an easier time of finding mates, navigating migration routes, and other things that will influence their interactions with the organisms in the area. Speaking of migration…

2. Emigration and Immigration

Emigration is when a group of living things moves out of a specific area, whether it be to resource deprivation, seasonal changes, etc. Immigration, on the other hand, is when that group moves into an area, likely for similar reasons.

Though many species are nomadic, this is the primary mechanism by which a species distribution (how a certain type of animal is dispersed throughout an area known as its “home range”) is developed.

Population sinks and sources

Well the animals must come from and end up somewhere, right? Where the group of migrating organisms come from is known as the “source population.”

They’re typically pushed out, or “poured,” if you will, into the sink population, due to crazy baby booms happening all the time. A sink population couldn’t exist if a source population wasn’t constantly overflowing into it. (Are you getting the water analogy here?)

3. Colonization Cycles

It’s likely that you’ve heard the term “pioneer species” thrown around here and there. This is a term related to the order in which a habitat is colonized, or inhabited, by different types of species over time (the pioneer species is the first to colonize an area). This is one of the core features behind the looming “What is ecology?” question, and how the dynamics play out. Why?

The manner and pattern by which an area is inhabited determines the type of niches that will become available and the animals that will inhabit those niches. Think of a niche like a single unit in an apartment complex.

The overall habitat is the complex, and the living experience at that complex will be determined primarily by the neighborhood, the landlord, and the first few people that move in. If the first few tenants treat the place well and follow the rules according to the needs of the surrounding area, then the complex will be able to welcome new residents without a problem.

4. Competition

No matter what type of animal it is, every living thing is engaged in competition at all times. Are you drinking water right now? You’re in competition for that water with every living being on your side of the coast, or in your locality relative to the river or other body of water. The deer that’s eating the plants from your garden are in direct competition with you for your resources.

Competition is simply the act of consuming resources before another individual can. Those resources often take the form of water, food, and shelter; however, they can also be opportunities. For instance, a lion that is attempting to establish dominance in a pride will be in direct competition with another male to accomplish this goal.

There are a few different types of competition, which can be passive or direct. These are:

  • Interference competition: This is when an organism takes something away from another organism directly. (For example, a pack of hyenas may steal a kill from a lone leopard.)
  • Exploitative competition: This is more of a passive competition, where one individual takes ownership or uses a resource before another one can. This can lead to “competitive exclusion.”
  • Apparent competition: Organisms that are engaged in this type of competition do not directly compete with one another. Rather, they are passively “competing” for a reduced chance of predation. Let’s look at a black bear, for example. This bear feeds on both fish and small deer (when it can). Though the deer and fish will likely never even know the other exists, they are both competing for the chance to not be eaten by the bear.
Photo by Jack Charles on Unsplash

These are by no means the only mechanisms that comrpise the science of ecology. However, they do represent some of the biggest concepts by which we understand how species interact with each other and their environment. For example, think of how these concepts factor into what you already know about the natural world.

Emigration and immigration influence magnanimous spectacles like The Great Migration. Competition is the mechanism by which we end up seeing incredible, rare species interactions like those between wild dogs and cheetahs, leopards, or African lions when in pursuit of antelope. Population growth and reduction is the core driver behind whether a species will become endangered or not.

But what keeps these mechanisms all functioning?

How Niches Help Species to Stay in Their Lanes

As you may know, the many types of species that inhabit this planet all do so in a way that is defined by the overall role they play in their relative ecosystem. So, when you are embarking on your journey to learn the answer to what ecology is, you must establish an understanding of these roles and the niches that enable them.

A niche is the culmination of environmental factors and ecological limits that allow an organism to exist within an ecosystem.

A great white shark can exist in the depths of the ocean because its prey species, seals, sea lions, and other fish and mammals, exist alongside it. The shark is limited by the fact that it must live in saltwater and cannot persist on land, so it’s restricted to occupy its niche as an apex predator in the ocean.

Each species is given a specific niche within its community and habitat – its own apartment complex. Where it lives in that apartment complex determines the experience it will have there, and the role it will play in its geographic area. The combination of all these aspects (and more), then serve to form the ecology of that species, its population, and community.


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