An ecosystem is a complete community of living organisms and the nonliving materials of their surroundings. Thus, its components include plants, animals, and microorganisms; soil, rocks, and minerals; as well as surrounding water sources and the local atmosphere. The size of ecosystems varies tremendously. An ecosystem could be an entire rain forest, covering a geographical area larger than many nations, or it could be a puddle or a backyard garden. Even the body of an animal could be considered an ecosystem, since it is home to numerous microorganisms. On a much larger scale, the history of various human societies provides an instructive illustration as to the ways that ecosystems have influenced civilizations.


The Biosphere

Earth itself could be considered a massive ecosystem, in which the living and nonliving worlds interact through four major subsystems: the atmosphere, hydrosphere (all the planet’s waters, except for moisture in the atmosphere), geosphere (the soil and the extreme upper portion of the continental crust), and biosphere. The biosphere includes all living things: plants (from algae and lichen to shrubs and trees), mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, aquatic life, insects, and all manner of microscopic forms, including bacteria and viruses. In addition, the biosphere draws together all formerly living things that have not yet decomposed.
Several characteristics unite the biosphere. One is the obvious fact that everything in it is either living or recently living. Then there are the food webs that connect organisms on the basis of energy flow from one species to another. A food web is similar to the more familiar concept food chain, but in scientific terms a food chain—a series of singular organisms in which each plant or animal depends on the organism that precedes or follows it—does not exist. Instead, the feeding relationships between organisms in the real world are much more complex and are best described as a web rather than a chain.

Food Webs

Food webs are built around the flow of energy between organisms, known as energy transfer, which begins with plant life. Plants absorb energy in two ways. From the Sun, they receive electromagnetic energy in the form of visible light and invisible infrared waves, which they convert to chemical energy through a process known as photosynthesis. In addition, plants take in nutrients from the soil, which contain energy in the forms of various chemical compounds. These compounds may be organic, which typically means that they came from living things, though, in fact, the term organic refers strictly to characteristic carbon-based chemical structures. Plants also receive inorganic compounds from minerals in the soil. (See Minerals. For more about the role of carbon in inorganic compounds, see Carbon Cycle.)
Contained in these minerals are six chemical elements essential to the sustenance of life on planet Earth: hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. These are the elements involved in biogeochemical cycles, through which they continually are circulated between the living and nonliving worlds—that is, between organisms, on the one hand, and the inorganic realms of rocks, minerals, water, and air, on the other (see Biogeochemical Cycles).

From plants to carnivores

As plants take up nutrients from the soil, they convert them into other forms, which provide usable energy to organisms who eat the plants. (An example of this conversion process is cellular respiration, discussed in Carbon Cycle.) When an herbivore, or plant-eating organism, eats the plant, it incorporates this energy.
Chances are strong that the herbivore will be eaten either by a carnivore, a meat-eating organism, or by an omnivore, an organism that consumes both herbs and herbivores—that is, both plants and animals. Few animals consume carnivores or omnivores, at least by hunting and killing them. (Detritivores and decomposers, which we discuss presently, consume the remains of all creatures, including carnivores and omnivores.) Humans are an example of omnivores, but they are far from the only omnivorous creatures. Many bird species, for instance, are omnivorous.
As nutrients pass from plant to herbivore to carnivore, the total amount of energy in them decreases. This is dictated by the second law of thermodynamics (see Energy and Earth), which shows that energy transfers cannot be perfectly efficient. Energy is not “lost”—the total amount of energy in the universe remains fixed, though it may vary with a particular system, such as an individual ecosystem—but it is dissipated, or directed into areas that do not aid in the transfer of energy between organisms. What this means for the food web is that each successive level contains less energy than the levels that precede it.


In the case of a food web, something interesting happens with regard to energy efficiency as soon as we pass beyond carnivores and omnivores to the next level. It might seem at first that there could be no level beyond carnivores or omnivores, since they appear to be “at the top of the food chain,” but this only illustrates why the idea of a food web is much more useful. After carnivores and omnivores, which include some of the largest, most powerful, and most intelligent creatures, come the lowliest of all organisms: decomposers and detritivores, an integral part of the food web.
Decomposers, which include bacteria and fungi, obtain their energy from the chemical breakdown of dead organisms as well as from animal and plant waste products. Detritivores perform a similar function: by feeding on waste matter, they break organic material down into inorganic substances that then can become available to the biosphere in the form of nutrients for plants. The principal difference between detriti-vores and decomposers is that the former are relatively complex organisms, such as earthworms or maggots.
Both decomposers and detritivores aid in decomposition, a chemical reaction in which a compound is broken down into simpler compounds or into its constituent elements. Often an element such as nitrogen appears in forms that are not readily usable by organisms, and therefore such elements (which may appear individually or in compounds) need to be chemically processed through the body of a decomposer or detritivore. This processing involves chemical reactions in which the substance—whether an element or compound—is transformed into a more usable version.
By processing chemical compounds from the air, water, and geosphere, decomposers and detritivores deposit nutrients in the soil. These creatures feed on plant life, thus making possible the cycle we have described. Clearly this system, of which we have sketched only the most basic outlines, is an extraordinarily complex and well-organized one, in which every organism plays a specific role. In fact, earth scientists working in the realm of biosphere studies use the term niche to describe the role that a particular organism plays in its community. (For more about the interaction of species in a biological community, see Ecology and Ecological Stress.)


The Fate of Human Civilizations

An interesting place to start in investigating examples of ecosystems is with a species near and dear to all of us: Homo sapiens. Much has been written about the negative effect industrial civilization has, or may have, on the natural environment—a topic discussed in Ecology and Ecological Stress—but here our concern is somewhat different. What do ecosystems, and specifically the availability of certain plants and animals, teach us about specific societies?
In his 1997 bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, the ethnobotanist Jared M. Diamond (1937-) explained how he came to approach this question. While he was working with native peoples in New Guinea, a young man asked him why the societies of the West enjoyed an abundance of material wealth and comforts while those of New Guinea had so little. It was a simple question, but the answer was not obvious.
Diamond refused to give any of the usual pat responses offered in the past—for example, the Marxist or socialist claim that the West prospers at the expense of native peoples. Nor, of course, could he accept the standard answer that a white descendant of Europeans might have given a century earlier, that white Westerners are smarter than dark-skinned peoples. Instead, he approached it as a question of environment, and the result was his thought-provoking analysis contained in Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Advantages of geography

As Diamond showed, those places where agriculture was first born were precisely those blessed with favorable climate, soil, and indigenous plant and animal life. Incidentally, none of these locales was European, nor were any of the peoples inhabiting them “white.” Agriculture came into existence in four places during a period from about 8000 to 6000 B.C. In roughly chronological order, they were Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China. All were destined to emerge as civilizations, complete with written language, cities, and organized governments, between about 3000 and 2000 B.C.
Of course, it is no accident that civilization was born first in those societies that first developed agriculture: before a civilization can evolve, a society must become settled, and in order for that to happen, it must develop agriculture. Each of these societies, it should be noted, formed along a river, and that of Mesopotamia was born at the confluence of two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. No wonder, then, that the spot where these two rivers met was identified in the Bible as the site for the Garden of Eden or that historians today refer to ancient Mesopotamia as “the Fertile Crescent.” (For a very brief analysis regarding possible reasons why modern Mesopotamia— that is, Iraq—does not fit this description, see the discussion of desertification in Soil Conservation.)
In the New World, by contrast, agriculture appeared much later and in a much more circumscribed way. The same was true of Africa and the Pacific Islands. In seeking the reasons for why this happened, Diamond noted a number of factors, including geography. The agricultural areas of the Old World were stretched across a wide area at similar latitudes. This meant that the climates were not significantly different and would support agricultural exchanges, such as the spread of wheat and other crops from one region or ecosystem to another. By contrast, the land masses of the New World or Africa have a much greater north-south distance than they do east to west.

Diversity of species

Today such places as the American Midwest support abundant agriculture, and one might wonder why that was not the case in the centuries before Europeans arrived. The reason is simple but subtle, and it has nothing to do with Europeans’ “superiority” over Native Americans. The fact is that the native North American ecosystems enjoyed far less biological diversity, or biodiversity, than their counterparts in the Old World. Peoples of the New World successfully domesticated corn and potatoes, because those were available to them. But they could not domesticate emmer wheat, the variety used for making bread, when they had no access to that species, which originated in Mesopotamia and spread throughout

The Old World

Similarly, the New World possessed few animals that could be domesticated either for food or labor. A number of Indian tribes domesticated some types of birds and other creatures for food, but the only animal ever adapted for labor was the llama. The llama, a cousin of the camel found in South America, is too small to carry heavy loads. Why did the Native Americans never harness the power of cows, oxen, or horses? For the simple reason that these species were not found in the Americas. After horses in the New World went extinct at some point during the last Ice Age (see Paleontology), they did not reappear in the Americas until Europeans brought them after a.d. 1500.
The llama was one of the few domesticated animals adapted for work in the New World, a place with a small number of animal and plant species and lack of ecological complexity before the Europeans arrived in about 1500 a.d.
The llama was one of the few domesticated animals adapted for work in the New World, a place with a small number of animal and plant species and lack of ecological complexity before the Europeans arrived in about 1500 a.d.
Diamond also noted the link between biodiversity and the practice, common among peoples in New Guinea and other remote parts of the world, of eating what Westerners would consider strange cuisine: caterpillars, insects—even, in some cases, human flesh. At one time, such practices served only to brand these native peoples further as “savages” in the eyes of Europeans and their descendants, but it turns out that there is a method to the apparent madness. In places such as the highlands of New Guinea, a scarcity of animal protein sources compels people to seek protein wherever they can find it.
By contrast, from ancient times the Fertile Crescent possessed an extraordinary diversity of animal life. Among the creatures present in that region (the term sometimes is used to include Egypt as well as Mesopotamia) were sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, and horses. With the help of these animals for both food and labor—people ate horses long before they discovered their greater value as a mode of transportation—the lands of the Old World were in a position to progress far beyond their counterparts in the New.

Greater exposure to microorganisms

Ultimately, these societies came to dominate their physical environments and excel in the development of technology; hence the “steel” and “guns” in Diamond’s title. But what about “germs”? It is a fact that after Europeans began arriving in the New World, they killed vast populations without firing a shot, thanks to the microbes they carried with them. Of course, it would be centuries before scientists discovered the existence of microorganisms. But even in 1500, it was clear that the native peoples of the New World had no natural resistance to smallpox or a host of other diseases, including measles, chicken pox, influenza, typhoid fever, and bubonic plague.
Once again the Europeans’ advantage over the Native Americans derived from the ecological complexity of their world compared with that of the Indians. In the Old World, close contact with farm animals exposed humans to germs and disease. So, too, did close contact with other people in crowded, filthy cities. This exposure, of course, killed off large numbers of people, but those who survived tended to be much hardier and possessed much stronger immune systems. Therefore, when Europeans came into contact with native Americans, they were like walking biological warfare weapons.
With its sauna-like environment and closed canopy, a tropical cloud forest produces lush vegetation and is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the earth.
With its sauna-like environment and closed canopy, a tropical cloud forest produces lush vegetation and is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the earth.

Evaluating Ecosystems

The ease with which Europeans subdued Native Americans fueled the belief that Europeans were superior, but, as Diamond showed, if anything was superior, it was the ecosystems of the Old World. This “superiority” relates in large part to the diversity of organisms an ecosystem possesses. Many millions of years ago, Earth’s oceans and lands were populated with just a few varieties of single-cell organisms, but over time increasing differentiation of species led to the development of the much more complex ecosystems we know now.
Such differentiation is essential, given the many basic types of ecosystem that the world has to offer: forests and grasslands, deserts and aquatic environments, mountains and jungles. Among the many ways that these ecosystems can be evaluated, aside from such obvious parameters as relative climate, is in terms of abundance and complexity of species.

Abundance and complexity

The biota (a combination of all flora and fauna, or plant and animal life, respectively) in a desert or the Arctic tundra is much less complex than that of a tropical rain forest or, indeed,almost any kind of forest, because far fewer species can live in a desert or tundra environment. For this reason, it is said that a desert or tundra ecosystem is less complex than a forest one. There may be relatively large numbers of particular species in a less complex ecosystem, however, in which case the ecosystem is said to be abundant though not complex in a relative sense.
Another way to evaluate ecosystems is in terms of productivity. This concept refers to the amount of biomass—potentially burnable energy—produced by green plants as they capture sunlight and use its energy to create new organic compounds that can be consumed by local animal life. Once again, a forest, and particularly a rain forest, has a very high level of productivity, whereas a desert or tundra ecosystem does not.


Now let us look more closely at a full-fledged ecosystem—that of a forest—in action. It might seem that all forests are the same, but this could not be less the case. A forest is simply any ecosystem dominated by tree-sized woody plants. Beyond that, the characteristics of weather, climate, elevation, latitude, topography, tree species, varieties of animal species, moisture levels, and numerous other parameters create the potential for an almost endless diversity of forest types.
In fact, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines 24 different types of forest, which are divided into two main groups. On the one hand, there are those forests with a closed canopy at least 16.5 ft. (5 m) high. The canopy is the upper portion of the trees in the forest, and closed-canopy forests are so dense with vegetation that from the ground the sky is not visible. On the other hand, the UNESCO system encompasses open woodlands with a shorter, more sparse, and unclosed canopy. The first group tends to be tropical and subtropical (located at or near the equator), while the second typically is located in temperate and subpolar forests—that is, in a region between the two tropical latitudes and the Arctic and Antarctic circles, respectively. In the next paragraphs, we examine a few varieties of forest as classified by UNESCO.

Tropical and subtropical forests

Tropical rain forests are complex ecosystems with a wide array of species. The dominant tree type is an angiosperm (a type of plant that produces flowers during sexual reproduction), known colloquially as tropical hardwoods. The climate and weather are what one would expect to find in a place called a tropical rain forest, that is, rainy and warm. When the rain falls, it cools things down, but when the sun comes back out, it turns the world of the tropical rain forest into a humid, sauna-like environment.
Naturally, the creatures that have evolved in and adapted to a tropical rain forest environment are those capable of enduring high humidity, but they are tolerant of neither extremely cool conditions nor drought. Within those parameters, however, exists one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth: the tropical rain forest is home to an astonishing array of animals, plants, insects, and microorganisms. Indeed, without the tropical rain forest, terrestrial (land-based) animal life on Earth would be noticeably reduced.
In the tropics, by definition the four seasons to which we are accustomed in temperate zones—winter, spring, summer, and fall—do not exist. In their place there is a rainy season and a dry season, but there is no set point in the year at which trees shed their leaves. In a tropical and subtropical evergreen forest conditions are much drier than in the rain forest, and individual trees or tree species may shed their leaves as a result of dry conditions. All trees and species do not do so at the same time, however, so the canopy remains rich in foliage year-round—hence the term evergreen. As with a rain forest, the evergreen forest possesses a vast diversity of species.
In contrast to the two tropical forest ecosystems just described, a mangrove forest is poor in species. In terms of topography and landform, these forests are found in low-lying, muddy regions near saltwater. Thus, the climate is likely to be humid, as in a rain forest, but only organisms that can tolerate flooding and high salt levels are able to survive there. Mangrove trees, a variety of angiosperm, are suited to this environment and to the soil, which is poor in oxygen.

Temperate and subarctic forests

Among the temperate and subarctic forest types are temperate deciduous forests, containing trees that shed their leaves seasonally, and temperate and subarctic evergreen conifer forests, in which the trees produce cones bearing seeds. These are forest types familiar to most people in the continental United States. The first variety is dominated by such varieties as oak, walnut, and hickory, while the second is populated by pine, spruce, or fir as well as other types, such as hemlock.
Less familiar to most Americans outside the West Coast are temperate winter-rain evergreen broadleaf forests. These forests are dominated by evergreen angiosperms and appear in regions that have both a pronounced wet season and a summer drought season. Such forests can be found in southern California, where an evergreen oak of the Quercus genus is predominant. Even less familiar to Americans is the temperate and subpolar evergreen rain forest, which is found in the Southern Hemisphere. Occurring in a wet, frost-free ocean environment, these forests are dominated by such evergreen angiosperms as the southern beech and southern pine.


Several times we have referred to angiosperms, a name that encompasses not just certain types of tree but also all plants that produce flowers during sexual reproduction. The name, which comes from Latin roots meaning “vessel seed,” is a reference to the fact that the plant keeps its seeds in a vessel whose name emphasizes these plants’ sexual-type reproduction: an ovary.
Angiosperms are a beautiful example of how a particular group of organisms can adapt to specific ecosystems and do so in a way much more efficient than did their evolutionary forebear. Flowering plants evolved only about 130 million years ago, by which time Earth had long since been dominated by another variety of seed-producing plant, the gymnosperm, of which pines and firs are an example. Yet in a relatively short period of time, from the standpoint of the earth sciences, angiosperms have gone on to become the dominant plants in the world. Today, about 80% of all living plant species are flowering plants.

Angiosperm vs.gymnosperm seeds

How did they do this? They did it by developing a means to coexist more favorably than gymnosperms with the insect and animal life in their ecosystems. Gymnosperms produce their seeds on the surface of leaflike structures, making the seeds vulnerable to physical damage and drying as the wind whips the branches back and forth. Furthermore, insects and other animals view gymnosperm seeds as a source of nutrition.
In an angiosperm, by contrast, the seeds are tucked away safely inside the ovary. Furthermore, the evolution of the flower not only has added a great deal of beauty to the world but also has provided a highly successful mechanism for sexual reproduction. This sexual reproduction makes it possible to develop new genetic variations, as genetic material from two individuals of differing ancestry come together to produce new offspring.

Gymnosperm pollination

Gymnosperms reproduce sexually as well, but they do so by a less efficient method. In both cases, the trees have to overcome a significant challenge: the fact that sexual reproduction normally requires at least one of the individual plants to be mobile. Gymnosperms package the male reproductive component in tiny pollen grains, which are released into the wind. Eventually, the grains are blown toward the female component of another individual plant of the same species.
This method succeeds well enough to sustain large and varied populations of gymnosperms but at a terrific cost, as is evident to anyone who lives in a region with a high pollen count in the spring. A yellow dust forms on everything. So much pollen accumulates on window sills, cars, mailboxes, and roofs that only a good rain (or a car wash) can take it away, and one tends to wonder what good all this pollen is doing for the trees.
The truth is that pollination is wasteful and inefficient. Like all natural mechanisms, it benefit the overall ecosystem, in this case, by making nutrient-rich pollen grains available to the soil. Packed with energy, pollen grains contain large quantities of nitrogen, making them a major boost to the ecosystem if not to the human environment. But it costs the gymnosperm a great deal, in terms of chemical and biological energy and material, to produce pollen grains, and the benefits are much more uncertain.
Pollen might make it to the right female component, and, in fact, it will, given the huge amounts of pollen produced. Yet the overall system is rather like trying to solve an economic problem by throwing a pile of dollar bills into the air and hoping that some of the money lands in the right place. For this reason, it is no surprise that angiosperms gradually are overtaking gymnosperms.


Abundance: A measure of the degree to which an ecosystem possesses large numbers of particular species. An abundant ecosystem may or may not have a wide array of different species. Compare with complexity.
Angiosperm: A type of plant that produces flowers during sexual reproduction.
Biogeochemical cycles: The changes that particular elements undergo as they pass back and forth through the various earth systems and particularly between living and nonliving matter. The elements involved in biogeochemical cycles are hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur.
Biota: A combination of all flora and fauna (plant and animal life, respectively) in a region.
Canopy: The upper portion of the trees in a forest. In a closed-canopy forest the canopy (which may be several hundred feet, or well over 50 meters, high) protects the soil and lower areas from sun and torrential rainfall.
Carnivore: A meat-eating organism.
Complexity: A measure of the degree to which an ecosystem possesses a wide array of species. These species may or may not appear in large numbers. Compare with abundance.
Compound: A substance made up of atoms of more than one element chemically bonded to one another.
Decomposers: Organisms that obtain their energy from the chemical breakdown of dead organisms as well as from animal and plant waste products. The principal forms of decomposer are bacteria and fungi.
Decomposition reaction: A chemical reaction in which a compound is broken down into simpler compounds or into its constituent elements. On Earth, this often is achieved through the help of detritivores and decomposers.
Detritivores: Organisms that feed on waste matter, breaking down organic material into inorganic substances that then can become available to the biosphere in the form of nutrients for plants. Their function is similar to that of decomposers, but unlike decomposers—which tend to be bacteria or fungi—detritivores are relatively complex organisms, such as earthworms or maggots.
Ecosystem: A community of interdependent organisms along with the inorganic components of their environment.
Element: A substance made up of only one kind of atom. Unlike compounds, elements cannot be broken chemically into other substances.
Energy transfer: The flow of energy between organisms in a food web.
Food web: A term describing the interaction of plants, herbivores, carnivores, omnivores, decomposers, and detri-tivores in an ecosystem. Each consumes nutrients and passes it along to other organisms. Earth scientists typically prefer this name to food chain, an everyday term for a similar phenomenon. A food chain is a series of singular organisms in which each plant or animal depends on the organism that precedes or follows it. Food chains rarely exist in nature.
Geosphere: The upper part of Earth’s continental crust, or that portion of the solid earth on which human beings live and which provides them with most of their food and natural resources.
Gymnosperm: A type of plant that reproduces sexually through the use of seeds that are exposed, not hidden in an ovary, as with an angiosperm.
Herbivore: A plant-eating organism.
Hydrosphere: The entirety of Earth’s water, excluding water vapor in the atmosphere but including all oceans, lakes, streams, groundwater, snow, and ice.
Niche: A term referring to the role that a particular organism plays within its biological community.
Omnivore: An organism that eats both plants and other animals.
Organic: At one time, chemists used the term organic only in reference to living things. Now the word is applied to most compounds containing carbon and hydrogen, thus excluding carbonates (which are minerals) and oxides, such as carbon dioxide.
Photosynthesis: The biological conversion of light energy (that is, electromagnetic energy) from the Sun to chemical energy in plants.
System: Any set of interactions that can be set apart mentally from the rest of the universe for the purposes of study, observation, and measurement.

Angiosperm pollination

The angiosperm overcomes its own lack of mobility by making use of mobile organisms. Whereas insects and animals pose a threat to gymnosperms, angiosperms actually put bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other flower-seeking creatures to work aiding their reproductive process. By evolving bright colors, scents, and nectar, the flowers of angiosperms attract animals, which travel from one flower to another, accidentally moving pollen as they do.
Because of this remarkably efficient system, animal-pollinated species of flowering plants do not need to produce as much pollen as gymnosperms. Instead, they can put their resources into other important functions, such as growth and greater seed production. In this way, the angiosperm solves its own problem of reproduction—and as a side benefit adds enormously to the world’s beauty.

The Complexity of Ecosystems

The relationships between these two types of seed-producing plant and their environments illustrate, in a very basic way, the complex interactions between species in an ecosystem. Environmentalists often speak of a “delicate balance” in the natural world, and while there is some dispute as to how delicate that balance is—nature shows an amazing resilience in recovering from the worst kinds of damage—there is no question that a balance of some kind exists.
To put it another way, an ecosystem is an extraordinarily complex environment that brings together biological, geologic, hydrologic, and atmospheric components. Among these components are trees and other plants; animals, insects,and microorganisms; rocks, soil, minerals, and landforms; water in the ground and on the surface, flowing or in a reservoir; wind, sun, rain, moisture; and all the other specifics that make up weather and climate.
In the present context, we have not attempted to provide anything even approaching a comprehensive portrait of an ecosystem, drawing together all or most of the aspects described in the preceding paragraph. A full account of even the simplest ecosystem would fill an entire topic. Given that level of complexity, it is safe to say that one should be very cautious before tampering with the particulars of an ecosystem. The essay on Ecology and Ecological Stress concerns what happens when such tampering occurs.

Next post:

Previous post: