2012: Advent Biology: That thing called Ecology

by on December 7, 2012

I’d like to take a brief post to think about ecology, and where it fits into that corner of science we’ve labelled biology. When boiled down, and the one definition most people will hear, ecology is the study of organisms and how they interact with their environment. This doesn’t really do justice to how the huge diversity of organisms on this planet or how they all came about to be here…

All the species around us, including the big striking ones, the cute(and not so cute) little ones, the green photosynthesizing ones, the creepy and the crawly ones, and the ones too small to see(and yet outnumbering us fantastically) are the result of many millions of years of evolution. The patterns ecologists study, of species and environment, are snapshots of a legacy as long as life itself and trying to make sense of them without the context of that evolutionary history would give us shallow, unsatisfactory conclusions.

The other side of the coin is that evolution is the product of ecology throughout the history of life on earth. The environment any individual animal, plant, fungus, bacterium, or archaean (I’ll get to them later this Advent, I hope) lives in will impact and constrain it. As that individual is a product of its history, so that ecological snapshot of its life will impact the evolution of that species and shape future life on Earth.

Ecology cannot stand alone, because it seeks the full explanation, further and further with all the scientific disciplines chipping in, genetics to physical environment and everything in between. Due to the sheer complexity of the picture ecologists look at and the critical importance of chance events in the struggle for life, we will never be able to wholly predict future responses of species and the shape of life to come from studying present ecology. We have certainly gone a long way towards understanding how to start, though.

[Image from Tree Of Life Project]

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