Author: Laura Dewis

Ecology - A scientific understanding of the natural world

Updated Monday, 7th March 2005
The science that explores how life and environment interact

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Sea thrift on cliff.  Image copyright J.C. Partridge

Have you ever wondered why grey squirrels are taking over from red squirrels? Why some plants and bacteria thrive in soils contaminated with poisonous metals? Whether you can tell the age of a forest, or how different methods of farming affect the survival of British wildlife? The key to answering these questions is in understanding the relationships between living things and their environment. The scientific study of these relationships is called ecology.

Bluebells in a wood, photo copyright J.C. Partridge
Woodlands in spring, one of the many internationally important communities in the British Isles

Ecology explores the interactions between living things and their physical environment, such as temperature or the availability of water. It is also concerned with interactions between living things, such as predation (who is being eaten and by whom), competition (who wins the fight over food, a mate or a home) and mutualism (species surviving through co-operation). These relationships are important in shaping the natural world around us.

With so many different species and environmental influences, unravelling these relationships can be a complicated process, so scientists use a wide range of techniques to explore ecological questions. These include studying individuals or groups in nature, and conducting experiments in controlled environments, such as greenhouses. It can also involve looking at genetic and molecular information, or creating a mathematical model. Whether the study takes place in the countryside, in the laboratory or even ‘virtually’ on a computer, it is all part of ecology.

Ecological studies are vital in understanding important natural processes such as evolution and climate change. They can also help to solve a wide range of practical problems, from controlling diseases or pests to preventing an endangered species from becoming extinct.

Next: The right conditions

 

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