September 17, 2002

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Taking  Care of the PlanetWhat is Ecology?
Ecology is the study of how living (biotic) and nonliving (abiotic) parts of the environment interact with and depend each other. Guess you could say it's the study of life on earth! In fact, if you break ecology down "eco" means house and "logos" means to study. So, essentially we are studying about our house in the biggest sense, which is Planet Earth!

Salmon RiverEverything is Connected!
When scientists study the ecology of certain areas, they call those areas ecosystems. Together the living (biotic) and nonliving (abiotic) factors in an area is called an ecosystem. The biotic, or living, things in an environment would include plants, animals (this includes people), bacteria, fungi and all other living things. The abiotic or nonliving parts of the environment would include things like sunlight, the soil, atmosphere, climate, nutrients and water.

An ecosystem can be small like a puddle in your backyard, with only a few organisms interacting or it may be large, like a forest with lots of organisms interacting. Ecologists study the interactions within ecosystems.

The populations (groups) of specific plants and animals that live together in an ecosystem make up a community. Each species occupies a certain role or "niche" in the community. A species "niche" includes how a plant or animal uses the living and nonliving resources. No two species in a community have exactly the same niche.

Energy Flow & Food ChainEnergy - The Food Web
One of the major parts of life in an ecosystem is finding energy. All living things in an ecosystem need energy to survive. The cycle of organisms eating and being eaten is one way that parts of the environment interact with each other. The main source of energy for life on Earth comes from the sun. Plants use light energy from the Sun to make food. Organisms that use the sun for producing food are called producers. Algae, grass, trees, and vegetables are all producers.

Organisms that get energy by eating other organisms are called consumers. Consumers must eat producers or other consumers for their energy. This transfer of energy creates a food chain. There are four different kinds of consumers in an ecosystem:


Cows are Herbivores

Plant eaters


Mountain Lions are Carnivores

Meat Eaters


Bears are Omnivores

Plants & Meat


Mushrooms are Decomposers

Feeds on waste and on dead, decaying plants and animals.

Most consumers and decomposers get energy from more than one kind of food. Overlapping food chains create food webs.

Planet Earth ClipartWeb of Life
An ecosystem is a complex system with many parts, both living (biotic) and nonliving (abiotic). All parts of the system are important! If one part of the system is removed, lots of other parts can be affected. Just imagine a car - if you didn't fill it with oil, it would still run, but not for long! An ecosystem, with a part of it missing may continue for a while but in time would start falling apart. All of the parts of the ecosystem work together.

Cycles Within Ecosystems
All ecosystems depend on natural cycles. The main cycles in an ecosystem include:

                 Learn about the Water Cycle               Learn About the Nitrogen  Cycle             Learn about the Carbon cycle

Different Kinds of Ecosystems
Wherever you live, you are part of a large ecosystem called a Biome. Biomes cover huge areas and are characterized by their climate and the types of animals and plants that are found there.

Constant Change
Ecosystems are constantly changing. Houses, shopping malls, and people often replace grasslands and forests. Earthquakes, lightning, and floods can also change ecosystems. Some changes to an ecosystem like a species becoming extinct may be hard to see, while others like forest fires or volcanoes are easier to see and understand. The study of ecology helps us understand these processes.

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