Ecology: Distributions and Ecosystems

Ecology can be defined as the study of the distribution and abundance of organisms and their interactions with their (both biotic and abiotic) environment. This definition makes ecology a huge field, with many applications. One of the major lines of study these days is looking into how the environment (abiotic or biotic) shapes the distribution and abundance of the organisms under examination. The reason this is such a huge topic is because of climate change. In order to help understand the impacts of climate change on the distribution of organisms, a team of scientists from Yale and University of Colorado are putting together a Map of Life. Its goal is to allow you to visualize the distribution of (all) organisms across the planet and look at changes over time, seasons, and other variables. Right now it’s in a demo release phase, but it will continue to grow. It will likely become a hugely useful tool for scientists.

It’s not just the abiotic environment that influences ecology, however. A recent study demonstrated that large cascades that cross the terrestrial-marine delineation can have huge effects on the distribution of animals. The gist of the cascade is this: replacing native palm trees with non-natives leads to fewer birds roosting in the trees, which leads to less guano on the ground, which means fewer nutrients are being washed into the shallow ocean waters around the island, which means that there are fewer plankton, which means that the sting rays and manta rays are less likely to visit that particular island for a snack. Ecologists have known for a long time that this type of cascade is important, but this is yet another example, plus it clearly demonstrates a link between the terrestrial and marine environments.

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