Ecology and Ecological Stress - How it works

Ecosystems, Biological Communities, and Ecology

An ecosystem is the complete community of living organisms and the nonliving materials of their surroundings. It therefore includes components that represent the atmosphere, the hydrosphere (all of Earth's waters, except for moisture in the atmosphere), the geosphere (the soil and extreme upper portion of the continental crust), and the biosphere. The biosphere includes all living things: plants (from algae and lichen to shrubs and trees); mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, aquatic life, and insects as well as all manner of microscopic forms, including bacteria and viruses. In addition, the biosphere draws together all formerly living things that have not yet decomposed.

The components of the biosphere are united not only by the fact that all of them are either living or recently living but also by the food web. The food web, discussed in much detail within the context of Ecosystems, is a complex network of feeding relationships and energy transfers between organisms. At various levels and stages of the food web are plants; herbivores, or planteating organisms; carnivores (meat-eating organisms); omnivores (organisms that eat both meat and plants); and, finally, decomposers and detritivores, which obtain their energy from the chemical breakdown of dead organisms.


When discussing the living components of an ecosystem—that is, those components drawn from the biosphere—the term biological community is used. This also may be called biota, which refers to all flora and fauna, or plant and animal life, respectively, in a particular region. The relationship between these living things and their larger environment, as we have noted, is called ecology. Pioneered by the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), ecology was long held in disdain by the world scientific community, in part because it seemed to defy classification as a discipline. Though its roots clearly lie in biology, its broadly based, multidisciplinary approach seems more attuned to the earth sciences.

In any case, ecology long since has gained the respect it initially failed to receive, and much of that change has to do with a growing acceptance of two key concepts. On the one hand, there is the idea that all of life is interconnected and that the living world is tied to the nonliving, or inorganic, world. This is certainly a prevailing belief in the modern-day earth sciences, with its systems approach (see Earth Systems). On the other hand, there is the gathering awareness that certain aspects of industrial civilization may have a negative impact on the environment.

Clearly, the ecosystem as a whole is held together by tight bonds of interaction, but where the biological community is concerned, those bonds are even tighter. For the biological community to survive and thrive, a balance must be maintained between consumption and production of resources. Nature provides for that balance in numerous ways, but beginning in the late twentieth century, environmentalists in the industrialized world became increasingly concerned over the possibly negative effects their own societies exert on Earth's ecosystems and ecological communities.

Climax and Succession

One of the concerns raised by environmentalists is the issue of endangered species, or varieties of animal whose existence is threatened by human activities. In fact, nature itself sometimes replaces biological communities in a process called succession. Succession involves the progressive replacement of earlier biological communities with others over time. Coupled with succession is the idea of climax, a theoretical notion intended to describe a biological community that has reached a stable point as a result of ongoing succession.

Succession typically begins with a disturbance exerted on the preexisting ecosystem, and this disturbance usually is followed by recovery. This recovery may constitute the full extent of the succession process, at which point the community is said to have reached its climax point. Whether or not this happens depends on such particulars as climate, the composition of the soil, and the local biota.

There are two varieties of succession, primary and secondary. Primary succession occurs in communities that have never experienced significant modification of biological processes. In other words, the community affected by primary succession is "virgin," and primary succession typically involves enormous stresses. On the other hand, secondary succession happens after disturbances of relatively low intensity, such that the regenerative capacity of the local biota has not been altered significantly. Secondary succession takes place in situations where the biological community has experienced alteration.


Whereas climax and succession apply to broad biological communities, the term niche refers to the role a particular organism or species plays within the larger community. Though the concept of niche is abstract, it is unquestionable that each organism plays a vital role and that the totality of the ecosystem would suffer stress if a large enough group of organisms were removed from it. Furthermore, given the apparent interrelatedness of all components in a biological community, every species must have a niche—even human beings.

An interesting idea related to the niche is the concept of an indicator species: a plant or animal that by its presence, abundance, or chemical composition demonstrates a particular aspect of the character or quality of the environment. Indicator species can, for instance, be plants that accumulate large concentrations of metals in their tissues, thus indicating a preponderance of metals in the soil. This metal could indicate valuable deposits nearby, or it could serve as a sign that the soil is being contaminated.

In the rest of this essay, we explore a few examples of ecological stress—situations in which the relationship between organisms and environment has been placed under duress. We do not attempt to explore the ideas of succession, climax, niche, or indicator species with any consistency or depth; rather, our purpose in briefly discussing these terms is to illustrate a few of the natural mechanisms observed or hypothesized by ecologists in studying natural systems. The vocabulary of ecology, in fact, is as complex and varied as that of any natural science, and much of it is devoted to the ways in which nature responds to ecological stress.

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