An ecosystem is a geographic area where plants, animals, and other organisms, as well as weather and landscape, work together to form a bubble of life. Ecosystems contain biotic or living, parts, as well as abiotic factors, or nonliving parts. Biotic factors include plants, animals, and other organisms. Abiotic factors include rocks, temperature, and humidity.
Every factor in an ecosystem depends on every other factor, either directly or indirectly. A change in the temperature of an ecosystem will often affect what plants will grow there, for instance. Animals that depend on plants for food and shelter will have to adapt to the changes, move to another ecosystem, or perish.
Ecosystems can be very large or very small. Tide pools, the ponds left by the ocean as the tide goes out, are complete, tiny ecosystems. Tide pools contain seaweed, a kind of algae, which uses photosynthesis to create food. Herbivores such as abalone eat the seaweed. Carnivores such as sea stars eat other animals in the tide pool, such as clams or mussels. Tide pools depend on the changing level of ocean water. Some organisms, such as seaweed, thrive in an aquatic environment, when the tide is in and the pool is full. Other organisms, such as hermit crabs, cannot live underwater and depend on the shallow pools left by low tides. In this way, the biotic parts of the ecosystem depend on abiotic factors.
The whole surface of Earth is a series of connected ecosystems. Ecosystems are often connected in a larger biome. Biomes are large sections of land, sea, or atmosphere. Forests, ponds, reefs, and tundra are all types of biomes, for example. They're organized very generally, based on the types of plants and animals that live in them. Within each forest, each pond, each reef, or each section of tundra, you'll find many different ecosystems.
The biome of the Sahara Desert, for instance, includes a wide variety of ecosystems. The arid climate and hot weather characterize the biome. Within the Sahara are oasis ecosystems, which have date palm trees, freshwater, and animals such as crocodiles. The Sahara also has dune ecosystems, with the changing landscape determined by the wind. Organisms in these ecosystems, such as snakes or scorpions, must be able to survive in sand dunes for long periods of time. The Sahara even includes a marine environment, where the Atlantic Ocean creates cool fogs on the Northwest African coast. Shrubs and animals that feed on small trees, such as goats, live in this Sahara ecosystem.
Even similar-sounding biomes could have completely different ecosystems. The biome of the Sahara Desert, for instance, is very different from the biome of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia and China. The Gobi is a cold desert, with frequent snowfall and freezing temperatures. Unlike the Sahara, the Gobi has ecosystems based not in sand, but kilometers of bare rock. Some grasses are able to grow in the cold, dry climate. As a result, these Gobi ecosystems have grazing animals such as gazelles and even takhi, an endangered species of wild horse.
Even the cold desert ecosystems of the Gobi are distinct from the freezing desert ecosystems of Antarctica. Antarcticas thick ice sheet covers a continent made almost entirely of dry, bare rock. Only a few mosses grow in this desert ecosystem, supporting only a few birds, such as skuas.
Threats to Ecosystems
For thousands of years, people have interacted with ecosystems. Many cultures developed around nearby ecosystems. Many Native American tribes of North Americas Great Plains developed a complex lifestyle based on the native plants and animals of plains ecosystems, for instance. Bison, a large grazing animal native to the Great Plains, became the most important biotic factor in many Plains Indians cultures, such as the Lakota or Kiowa. Bison are sometimes mistakenly called buffalo. These tribes used buffalo hides for shelter and clothing, buffalo meat for food, and buffalo horn for tools. The tallgrass prairie of the Great Plains supported bison herds, which tribes followed throughout the year.
As human populations have grown, however, people have overtaken many ecosystems. The tallgrass prairie of the Great Plains, for instance, became farmland. As the ecosystem shrunk, fewer bison could survive. Today, a few herds survive in protected ecosystems such as Yellowstone National Park.
In the tropical rain forest ecosystems surrounding the Amazon River in South America, a similar situation is taking place. The Amazon rain forest includes hundreds of ecosystems, including canopies, understories, and forest floors. These ecosystems support vast food webs.
Canopies are ecosystems at the top of the rainforest, where tall, thin trees such as figs grow in search of sunlight. Canopy ecosystems also include other plants, called epiphytes, which grow directly on branches. Understory ecosystems exist under the canopy. They are darker and more humid than canopies. Animals such as monkeys live in understory ecosystems, eating fruits from trees as well as smaller animals like beetles. Forest floor ecosystems support a wide variety of flowers, which are fed on by insects like butterflies. Butterflies, in turn, provide food for animals such as spiders in forest floor ecosystems.
Human activity threatens all these rain forest ecosystems in the Amazon. Thousands of acres of land are cleared for farmland, housing, and industry. Countries of the Amazon rain forest, such as Brazil, Venezuela, and Ecuador, are underdeveloped. Cutting down trees to make room for crops such as soy and corn benefits many poor farmers. These resources give them a reliable source of income and food. Children may be able to attend school, and families are able to afford better health care.
However, the destruction of rain forest ecosystems has its costs. Many modern medicines have been developed from rain forest plants. Curare, a muscle relaxant, and quinine, used to treat malaria, are just two of these medicines. Many scientists worry that destroying the rain forest ecosystem may prevent more medicines from being developed.
The rain forest ecosystems also make poor farmland. Unlike the rich soils of the Great Plains, where people destroyed the tallgrass prairie ecosystem, Amazon rain forest soil is thin and has few nutrients. Only a few seasons of crops may grow before all the nutrients are absorbed. The farmer or agribusiness must move on to the next patch of land, leaving an empty ecosystem behind.
Ecosystems can recover from destruction, however. The delicate coral reef ecosystems in the South Pacific are at risk due to rising ocean temperatures and decreased salinity. Corals bleach, or lose their bright colors, in water that is too warm. They die in water that isnt salty enough. Without the reef structure, the ecosystem collapses. Organisms such as algae, plants such as seagrass, and animals such as fish, snakes, and shrimp disappear.
Most coral reef ecosystems will bounce back from collapse. As ocean temperature cools and retains more salt, the brightly colored corals return. Slowly, they build reefs. Algae, plants, and animals also return.
Individual people, cultures, and governments are working to preserve ecosystems that are important to them. The government of Ecuador, for instance, recognizes ecosystem rights in the countrys constitution. The so-called Rights of Nature says Nature or Pachamama [Earth], where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution. Every person, people, community or nationality, will be able to demand the recognitions of rights for nature before the public bodies. Ecuador is home not only to rain forest ecosystems, but also river ecosystems and the remarkable ecosystems on the Galapagos Islands.
Bactrian and Dromedary
Different desert ecosystems support different species of camels. The dromedary camel is tall and fast, with long legs. It is native to the hot, dry deserts of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The Bactrian camel has a thicker coat, is shorter, and has more body fat than the dromedary. The Bactrian camel is native to the cold desert steppes of Central Asia.
It is easy to tell the two types of camels apart: Dromedaries have one hump, Bactrians have two.
The most diverse ecosystem in the world is the huge Coral Triangle in Southeast Asia. The Coral Triangle stretches from the Philippines in the north to the Solomon Islands in the east to the islands of Indonesia and Papua in the west.
"Human ecosystem" is the term scientists use to study the way people interact with their ecosystems. The study of human ecosystems considers geography, ecology, technology, economics, politics, and history. The study of urban ecosystems focuses on cities and suburbs.
The destruction of entire ecosystems by human beings has been called ecocide, or murder of the environment.
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry abiotic Adjective
lacking or absent of life.
to adjust to new surroundings or a new situation.
the strategy of applying profit-making practices to the operation of farms and ranches.
algae Plural Noun
(singular: alga) diverse group of aquatic organisms, the largest of which are seaweeds.
organisms that have a well-defined shape and limited growth, can move voluntarily, acquire food and digest it internally, and can respond rapidly to stimuli.
having to do with water.
area of the planet which can be classified according to the plant and animal life in it.
Encyclopedic Entry: biome biotic factor Noun
effect or impact of an organism on its environment.
large mammal native to North America. Also called American buffalo.
type of flying insect with large, colorful wings.
one of the top layers of a forest, formed by the thick leaves of very tall trees.
organism that eats meat.
Encyclopedic Entry: carnivore characterize Verb
to describe the characteristics of something.
all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.
Encyclopedic Entry: climate complex Adjective
system of ideas and general laws that guide a nation, state, or other organization.
one of the seven main land masses on Earth.
Encyclopedic Entry: continent coral reef Noun
rocky ocean features made up of millions of coral skeletons.
corn noun, adjective
tall cereal plant with large seeds (kernels) cultivated for food and industry. Also called maize.
reptile native to parts of Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
Encyclopedic Entry: crop culture Noun
learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.
resin obtained from South American trees, often dried and used as an ingredient in muscle relaxants.
date palm Noun
type of fruit tree.
fragile or easily damaged.
area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.
Encyclopedic Entry: desert destruction Noun
unique or identifiable.
a mound or ridge of loose sand that has been deposited by wind.
Encyclopedic Entry: dune ecocide Noun
total destruction of an ecosystem.
branch of biology that studies the relationship between living organisms and their environment.
Encyclopedic Entry: ecology economics Noun
study of monetary systems, or the creation, buying, and selling of goods and services.
community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.
Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem endangered species Noun
organism threatened with extinction.
Encyclopedic Entry: endangered species epiphyte Noun
plant that grows on the branches or trunk of another plant or object.
change in heritable traits of a population over time.
area used for agriculture.
fruit and tree native to Asia.
blossom or reproductive organs of a plant.
clouds at ground level.
Encyclopedic Entry: fog food Noun
material, usually of plant or animal origin, that living organisms use to obtain nutrients.
Encyclopedic Entry: food food web Noun
all related food chains in an ecosystem. Also called a food cycle.
Encyclopedic Entry: food web forest Noun
ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.
water that is not salty.
Galapagos Islands Noun
archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Ecuador.
small antelope native to Africa and Asia.
having to do with places and the relationships between people and their environments.
study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.
Encyclopedic Entry: geography goat Noun
hoofed mammal domesticated for its milk, coat, and flesh.
system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.
type of plant with narrow leaves.
grazing animal Noun
animal that feeds on grasses, trees, and shrubs.
Great Plains Noun
grassland region of North America, between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River.
health care Noun
system for addressing the physical health of a population.
organism that eats mainly plants and other producers.
Encyclopedic Entry: herbivore herd Noun
group of animals.
hermit crab Noun
type of marine animal (crustacean) that uses found materials, such as other creatures' shells, as its shell.
leather skin of an animal.
study of the past.
human ecosystem Noun
environment constructed or adapted to by people and culture.
amount of water vapor in the air.
Encyclopedic Entry: humidity ice sheet Noun
thick layer of glacial ice that covers a large area of land.
Encyclopedic Entry: ice sheet income Noun
wages, salary, or amount of money earned.
activity that produces goods and services.
type of animal that breathes air and has a body divided into three segments, with six legs and usually wings.
people and culture native to the Great Plains of North America.
people and culture of seven Sioux tribes native to the Great Plains.
the geographic features of a region.
Encyclopedic Entry: landscape maintain Verb
to continue, keep up, or support.
infectious disease caused by a parasite carried by mosquitoes.
having to do with the ocean.
substance used for treating illness or disease.
mammal considered to be highly intelligent, with four limbs and, usually, a tail.
tiny plant usually found in moist, shady areas.
aquatic animal with two shells that can open and close for food or defense.
substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.
Encyclopedic Entry: nutrient oasis Noun
area made fertile by a source of fresh water in an otherwise arid region.
Encyclopedic Entry: oasis ocean Noun
large body of salt water that covers most of the Earth.
Encyclopedic Entry: ocean organism Noun
living or once-living thing.
goddess of the Earth recognized by many cultures of the Andes Mountains.
to die or be destroyed.
to endure or continue.
process by which plants turn water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide into water, oxygen, and simple sugars.
flat, smooth area at a low elevation.
Encyclopedic Entry: plain plant Noun
organism that produces its own food through photosynthesis and whose cells have walls.
art and science of public policy.
small body of water surrounded by land.
to maintain and keep safe from damage.
available to an entire community, not limited to paying members.
drug used to treat malaria.
rain forest Noun
area of tall, mostly evergreen trees and a high amount of rainfall.
Encyclopedic Entry: Rain forest reef Noun
a ridge of rocks, coral, or sand rising from the ocean floor all the way to or near the ocean's surface.
Encyclopedic Entry: reef reliable Adjective
dependable or consistent.
unusual and dramatic.
available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.
large stream of flowing fresh water.
Encyclopedic Entry: river rock Noun
natural substance composed of solid mineral matter.
Sahara Desert Noun
world's largest desert, in north Africa.
small, loose grains of disintegrated rocks.
animal related to a spider with a poisonous sting in its tail.
type of plant that grows in the ocean.
sea star Noun
marine animal (echinoderm) with many arms radiating from its body. Also called a starfish.
marine algae. Seaweed can be composed of brown, green, or red algae, as well as "blue-green algae," which is actually bacteria.
structure that protects people or other organisms from weather and other dangers.
animal that lives near the bottom of oceans and lakes.
type of plant, smaller than a tree but having woody branches.
bird related to the seagull.
reptile with scales and no limbs.
amount of snow at a specific place over a specific period of time.
top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.
beans, or fruit, of the soybean plant, native to Asia.
eight-legged animal (arachnid) that usually spins webs to catch food.
endangered species of wild horse native to Central Asia. Also called Przewalski's horse.
tallgrass prairie Noun
plain where grasses grow up to 2 meters (6 feet) tall.
the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.
degree of hotness or coldness measured by a thermometer with a numerical scale.
Encyclopedic Entry: temperature tide Noun
rise and fall of the ocean's waters, caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun.
Encyclopedic Entry: tide tide pool Noun
small pond created by an ebb tide and submerged by a high tide.
existing in the tropics, the latitudes between the Tropic of Cancer in the north and the Tropic of Capricorn in the south.
cold, treeless region in Arctic and Antarctic climates.
underdeveloped country Noun
country that has fallen behind on goals of industrialization, infrastructure, and income.
ecosystem between the canopy and floor of a forest.
urban ecosystem Noun
environment of cities, towns, and suburbs.
huge and spread out.
necessary or very important.
state of the atmosphere, including temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind, humidity, precipitation, and cloudiness.
Encyclopedic Entry: weather wind Noun
movement of air (from a high pressure zone to a low pressure zone) caused by the uneven heating of the Earth by the sun.