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What is Ecology?

Ecology is the study of the relationships between living organisms, including humans, and their physical environment; it seeks to understand the vital connections between plants and animals and the world around them. Ecology also provides information about the benefits of ecosystems and how we can use Earth's resources in ways that leave the environment healthy for future generations.

From the Ecological Society of America

What is An Ecosystem?

An ecosystem is a community of animals and plants interacting with one another and with their physical environment. Ecosystems include physical and chemical components, such as soils, water, and nutrients that support the organisms living within them. These organisms may range from large animals and plants to microscopic bacteria. Ecosystems inlcude the interactions among all organisms in a given habitat. People are part of ecosystems. The health and wellbeing of human populations depends upon the services provided by ecosystems and their components - organisms, soil, water, and nutrients.

What are Ecosystem Services?

Ecosystem Services are the processes by which the environment produces resources that we often take for granted such as clean water, timber, and habitat for fisheries, and pollination of native and agricultural plants. Whether we find ourselves in the city or a rural area, the
ecosystems in which humans live provide goods and services that are very familiar to us.

Ecosystem Services

Have you ever considered that the cereal you eat is brought to you each morning by the wind, or that the glass of clear, cold, clean water drawn from you faucet may have been purified for you by a wetland or perhaps the root system of an entire forest? Trees in your front yard work to trap dust, dirt, and harmful gases from the air you breathe. The bright fire of oak logs you light to keep warm on cold nights and the medicine you take to ease the pain of an ailment come to you from Nature’s warehouse of services. Natural ecosystems perform fundamental life-support services upon which human civilization depends. Unless human activities are carefully planned and managed, valuable ecosystems will continue to be impaired or destroyed.

What  are Ecosystem Services Worth?

Natural ecosystems and the plants and animals within them provide humans with services that would be very difficult to duplicate. While it is often impossible to place an accurate monetary amount on ecosystem services, we can calculate some of the financial values. Many of these services are performed seemingly for “free”, yet are worth many trillions of dollars, for example:

• Much of the Mississippi River Valley’s natural flood protection services were destroyed when adjacent wetlands were drained and channels altered. As a result, the 1993 floods resulted in property damages estimated at twelve billion dollars partially from the inability of the Valley to lessen the impacts of the high volumes of water.

• Eighty percent of the world’s population relies upon natural medicinal products. Of the top 150 prescription drugs used in the U.S., 118 originate from natural sources: 74 percent from plants, 18 percent from fungi, 5 percent from bacteria, and 3 percent from one vertebrate (snake species). Nine of the top 10 drugs originate from natural plant products.

• Over 100,000 different animal species - including bats, bees, flies, moths, beetles, birds, and butterflies - provide free pollination services. One third of human food comes from plants pollinated by wild pollinators. The value of pollination services from wild pollinators in the U.S. alone is estimated at four to six billion dollars per year.

Ecosystems provide “services” that:

    • moderate weather extremes and their impacts
    • disperse seeds
    • mitigate drought and floods
    • protect people from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays
    • cycle and move nutrients
    • protect stream and river channels and coastal shores from erosion
    • detoxify and decompose wastes
    • control agricultural pests
    • maintain biodiversity
    • generate and preserve soils and renew their fertility
    • contribute to climate stability
    • purify the air and water
    • regulate disease carrying organisms
    • pollinate crops and natural vegetation

From the Ecological Society of America