What is an Ecosystem?
An ecosystem is a community of living organisms and a variety of other elements in the environment they inhabit. The living and nonliving components of an ecosystem are all connected through various ecological processes such as the flow of energy and the exchange of chemical products. In nature, the boundaries of ecosystems are not strictly defined. In fact, the biosphere can be thought of as one big ecosystem in which everything is connected in some way or another. However, some ecosystem boundaries can be easily identified, such as the edge of a desert, or the sea’s coast.
For example, a rainforest is an ecosystem that is made up of living things such as animals, plants, fungi, micro-organisms, and insects. At the same time, these living things are also in constant interaction with the non-living elements found in the ecosystem such as sunlight, air, nutrients in the soil, and even the temperature of the environment.
What makes up an Ecosystem?
The ecosystem is the basic unit of the scientific study of nature. It has two main types of components:
The biotope (abiotic): the physical environment with all its physical and chemical characteristics. This includes temperature, climate, humidity, sunlight, pH levels, gases such as oxygen and carbon dioxide, nutrients found in the soil.
The biocenosis (biotic): all living organisms that belong to and interact with the local environment. Animals, plants, insects, fungi, micro-organisms, are in interconnected and interdependent relationships with each other.
Scientists study these interconnected and overlapping interactions and processes between the biotic, living, and abiotic, nonliving, parts of an ecosystem. In doing so, they are able to determine what each part contributes to the whole picture. Moreover, they can also predict what happens when an ecosystem loses one of its components.
What are the Ecological Processes?
Four essential ecological processes in ecosystems are the water cycle, biogeochemical (or nutrient) cycling, the flow of energy, and succession. Together, these ecological processes produce organic matter, facilitate the transfer of nutrients, shape the soil and its contents, and allow organisms to reproduce.
Water is indispensable to life on Earth. Each of its three states — solid, liquid, and gas — are directly involved in many of the processes that make our planet habitable. Without question, one such process essential to the survival of a multitude of species is the Water Cycle.
The Water Cycle is the continuous movement of water in our planet; in bodies of water, in the earth, and in the atmosphere. The Water Cycle has no starting point, rather all its complex processes are constantly in motion and interact with each other.
Liquid water from all bodies of water evaporates into water vapour and rises into the atmosphere. Water in its gaseous form would then clump together, cool, and condense to form clouds. Eventually, water vapour in clouds would precipitate and falls back to the earth in the form of rain or snow. Water, once again in its liquid state, flows on the earth, into the earth, and through the earth. Liquid water also once again collects into rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans, where it will once again evaporate.
Biogeochemical or Nutrient Cycling
Nutrient circulation is one of the major functions of an ecosystem. In this cycle, biogeochemical elements such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus move from living to non-living to living and back again in a circular manner. With respect to matter, the Earth is a closed system, which means that none of these elements are lost nor destroyed. In an ecosystem, nutrients are then perpetually processed between their biotic and abiotic states. This allows nutrients found in food, the ground, and other organic matter to be indefinitely recycled over and over again.
The elements carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus are incorporated into living organisms in a multitude of ways. Plants obtain these from the air, water and soil around them. Animals obtain these from consuming other living organisms such as plants and other animals. These chemicals would then be transformed and processed within the organism. Sooner or later, either through excretion or decomposition, these nutrients return to the abiotic environment in an inorganic state, and will be once again used by living organisms in the future.
Energy Flow and Transformation
Each living organism can be classified into a trophic level, a step in the food chain. Plants are primary producers, herbivores are primary consumers, and carnivores are secondary consumers. Furthermore, carnivores that eat other carnivores are considered tertiary or even quaternary consumers.
Much of the energy that transfers through the food chain is lost to the different bodily processes of living organisms. Less energy is available at the herbivore level than the primary producer level. Even less energy is available at the carnivore level than the previous levels. As a general rule, less and less energy is available as it is transferred from organism to organism. It can then be said that energy transfer through the food chain is highly inefficient.
Ecological succession, or simply succession, is the process in which the composition of an ecological community changes over time. There are two types of succession: primary and secondary. In primary succession, lifeless regions with soil incapable of sustaining life are colonised by living things for the first time. On the other hand, secondary succession happens when areas previously inhabited by living things is disturbed, then reinhabited after the small-scale disturbance.
Ecological succession is a gradual process that takes place over many years. In essence, both primary and secondary succession shape a given ecosystem by creating an ever-changing mix of species as different disturbances of varying effects alter the landscape.
First, uninhabitable rock and substrate are weathered down by natural forces to the point that pioneer species like lichens and some plants are able to take root. The pioneer species would then further break down the mineral-rich lava into soil, on which other species can eventually grow and succeed the pioneer species. The first inhabitants would then decompose and die, nourishing the new soil even further.
With each new stage comes a new set of species living in the area, made more hospitable by their predecessors. These species will eventually also die and be replaced themselves. This process will continue and repeat multiple times during succession. It is possible for a community to reach a relatively stable point and experience a halt in the changing of composition. However, it is still unclear if succession truly reaches a stable endpoint.
Secondary succession occurs when a formerly inhabited area is recolonised after a disturbance that wipes out most if not all of the existing community.
For example, a forest is decimated by wildfire. This fire would have killed off a majority of the vegetation and the animals that were unable to flee. However, the nutrients would return to the soil in the form of ash. This nutrient-rich soil would then be an ideal place for recolonisation.
It was originally believed by early ecologists that succession was a predictable process in which a community will experience the same series of stages. They believed that after a certain amount of time, succession would reach a stable, unchanging final state known as a climax community. This final state is characterised by an equilibrium of existing species in which no other species can be accommodated.
Recently, however, this idea has been challenged. Instead of following a predetermined, set path, succession appears to follow different roads depending on the circumstance. It is also possible for an ecosystem to experience too many disturbances for it to reach a state of equilibrium. Climax communities could occur in some cases, but this may be unlikely for most ecological communities.
The Importance of Ecological Processes
Ecological processes, as abundant as they are ubiquitous, maintain many of the environmental conditions that support life on earth. In this respect, the success and development of ecosystems are wholly reliant on these biological, physical, and chemical processes. Collectively, these processes perform a plethora of functions that benefit all of the planet’s living and nonliving inhabitants.
However, these processes are impacted by both natural and artificial forces happening at varying times and at different locations. As custodians of our only home, the Earth, it is of utmost importance for us to realise the effect of human activity on ecological processes, especially how artificial forces can change, disrupt, and be detrimental to ecological balance.
Pesticides, waste products, pollutants, chemicals used in various industries can have a directly harmful effect on surrounding ecosystems. Wastewater treatment plant discharge, nutrients from fertilisers, manure, can also have a detrimental effect on the water quality of an ecosystem.
Land Use and Conversion
Human manipulation of areas of land can disrupt the natural balance of ecological processes. This can trigger a chain of events that can be felt throughout the whole ecosystem. For example, converting woodlands into urban or agricultural areas influences the types of primary producers, water collection and distribution, and the cycling of nutrients. Additionally, many human activities can exacerbate sediment erosion, impacting the soil on which primary producers grow.
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