"The BES Prize gave my research international recognition and has helped launch my career"

Michael Sheriff Elton Young Investigator Prize 2009

About Ecology

About Ecology

What is Ecology?

Ecology is the study of the distribution and abundance of organisms, the interaction between organisms, the interaction between organisms and their environment, and structure and function of ecosystems.

Why is Ecology Important?

The purpose of ecology is to provide knowledge about the way the world works and provide evidence on the interdependence between the natural world and people. A better understanding of ecological systems will allow society to predict the consequences of human activity on the environment.

Students working on the beach

 

Below are just a few examples of the many which could be used to illustrate why ecology is a science that matters.

How can we conserve a habitat and its biodiversity?

Heathland is a valued landscape and vegetation type that is fast disappearing thoughout much of Western Europe. Ecological studies of heathland and heather, the dominant plant, have helped us to understand the effects of traditional management; by grazing, burning and cutting. Studies have helped us to develop systems of management directed towards the conservation of this important habitat and its characteristic plants, insects, birds, reptiles and mammals. Maintaining a mosaic of habitats ensures the survival of a rich variety of wildlife. Ecology provides the essential basis for nature conservation.

How can we predict the ecological effects of pollution and climate change?

Governments and citizens around the world are increasingly aware of the ecological consequences of atmospheric pollution and climate change. Much of the pollution is caused by burning fossil fuel. In large-scale experiments, plants and animals are exposed to carefully controlled atmospheres and different ecological conditions. These include raised levels of sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, ozone and carbon dioxide. Scientists have discovered how plants and the insects that feed on them respond to pollution and climate change. Predictions can then be made about changes in distribution of plants and animals and how crop and forestry yields might be affected.

fishing boat

Can we fish the ocean without destroying its riches?

Southern Ocean food webs are dominated by krill (the shrimp-like animal eaten by birds, seals, whales and fish). Fishing takes place for krill, fish and squid. To ensure that fishing does not disrupt the food web and affect bird and seal populations, the marine ecosystem is managed as a whole under an international agreement to conserve living resources in the Antarctic. This makes it essential to understand marine communities and their interactions. Taking too many fish would affect albatross and penguin populations, whereas overfishing of krill could affect whales and seals, as well as some birds. International monitoring programmes keep a check on bird populations.

Which is the best way to control pests?

Adult and larval ladybirds are well known as important predators of aphids. To make the best use of the impact of ladybirds, together with other control measures (integrated pest management), we need to know how ladybirds react to the pesticides that are often used against aphids. In sprayed crops, ladybirds may come into contact with contaminated areas or consume contaminated aphids, which will lead to the ladybirds being poisoned and possibly killed. Ecologists are studying natural enemies such as ladybirds, to identify the best strategy for improved pest control.

Is a house without spiders good to live in?

The inside of our houses is a type of ecosystem. The warm and often moist atmosphere favours growth of the populations of many species, from mice to rats. Dust mites, which thrive on the skin particles we are constantly shedding, build up in bedding, where their faeces can trigger allergic reactions. Other mite and insect species live in dried foodstuffs and can become very numerous. These organisms are eaten by predators, particularly spiders and some beetles. An ethos of extreme cleanliness, leading to zero-tolerance of ‘pest’ species in houses has focused on the removal of large species, often predators. As a result, some of the natural controls on the smaller species, the mites, have been reduced and they have proliferated.

 

How is forest destruction affecting birds?

The tropical forests of West Africa are being converted to farms, plantations of non-native trees, mines or (through repeated bush-fire) Savannah. By 2005, over 80% of the high-forest in Ghana had been cleared in the space of 100 years. About one third of forest bird species cannot live in small remnants of forests. The largest species, such as the brown-cheeked hornbill, long-tailed goshawk and bronze-naped pigeon, need patches bigger than 10 square km; smaller birds such as the forest robin will use patches as small as 10 ha. Harvesting trees promotes invasion by Chromolaena odorata , a non-native weed that increases the frequency and intensity of fire: the main long-term threat to forest. Non-native but economically viable teak plantations support under 10% of native bird species. Through their research activities in the Ghanaian tropical forest ecosystem, researchers are able to advise as to the effect of land-conversion on native bird and plant species.

How important are Mangroves and can they be protected?

Mangrove is a forest that develops in the intertidal zone of estuaries and is flooded twice daily by the sea. It plays a number of important ecological roles, for example fixing sediments, supplying food and nursery sites for young fish and providing attachment sites for oyster colonies. Mangrove forest is a source of medicines, firewood and other timber for local populations. It offers an income for women, who harvest molluscs for sale. Mangrove forest is thus a multipurpose, complex ecosystem, perfectly adapted to this specific marine environment, but also very sensitive to variation in ecological conditions. Ecologists’ understanding of the ecosystem has shown that mangroves need to be managed using methods that integrate conservation and sustainable use, so that exploitation stays in balance with the preservation of biodiversity and traditional uses by local populations are safeguarded.

Tree canopy

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