Putting It Together: Ecology of Living Things

Now that we’ve learned about the ecology of living things, let’s return to the two examples we brought up at the beginning of the module.

Ecologist

We first had you imagine that you were an ecologist interested in learning about the natural world and how living things interact with each other as they compete for resources. This type of study would fall under population or community ecology, depending on if you’re studying members of the same species or not. Remember: populations are made up of a single species, and communities are made up of all living things in a specified area.

An asian carp swimming in a lake.

Figure 1. The invasive Asian carp

One example of community ecology is the study of invasive species. One of the many recent proliferations of an invasive species concerns the growth of Asian carp populations (Figure 1). Asian carp were introduced to the United States in the 1970s by fisheries and sewage treatment facilities that used the fish’s excellent filter feeding capabilities to clean their ponds of excess plankton. Some of the fish escaped, however, and by the 1980s they had colonized many waterways of the Mississippi River basin, including the Illinois and Missouri Rivers.

Voracious eaters and rapid reproducers, Asian carp may outcompete native species for food, potentially leading to their extinction. For example, black carp are voracious eaters of native mussels and snails, limiting this food source for native fish species. Silver carp eat plankton that native mussels and snails feed on, reducing this food source by a different alteration of the food web. In some areas of the Mississippi River, Asian carp species have become the most predominant, effectively outcompeting native fishes for habitat. In some parts of the Illinois River, Asian carp constitute 95 percent of the community’s biomass. Although edible, the fish is bony and not a desired food in the United States. Moreover, their presence threatens the native fish and fisheries of the Great Lakes, which are important to local economies and recreational anglers. Asian carp have even injured humans. The fish, frightened by the sound of approaching motorboats, thrust themselves into the air, often landing in the boat or directly hitting the boaters.

The Great Lakes and their prized salmon and lake trout fisheries are also being threatened by these invasive fish. Asian carp have already colonized rivers and canals that lead into Lake Michigan. One infested waterway of particular importance is the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Channel, the major supply waterway linking the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. To prevent the Asian carp from leaving the canal, a series of electric barriers have been successfully used to discourage their migration; however, the threat is significant enough that several states and Canada have sued to have the Chicago channel permanently cut off from Lake Michigan. Local and national politicians have weighed in on how to solve the problem, but no one knows whether the Asian carp will ultimately be considered a nuisance, like other invasive species such as the water hyacinth and zebra mussel, or whether it will be the destroyer of the largest freshwater fishery of the world.

The issues associated with Asian carp show how population and community ecology, fisheries management, and politics intersect on issues of vital importance to the human food supply and economy. Socio-political issues like this make extensive use of the sciences of population ecology (the study of members of a particular species occupying a particular area known as a habitat) and community ecology (the study of the interaction of all species within a habitat).

Physician

We then had you imagine being a future physician seeking to understand the connection between human health and ecology. Humans are a part of the ecological landscape, and human health is one important part of human interaction with our physical and living environment. Lyme disease, for instance, serves as one modern-day example of the connection between our health and the natural world (Figure 2).

 Photo (a) shows a deer tick on a leaf. The tick has a brown oval body with a smaller, round oval toward the front. The head and legs are black. Photo (b) shows an arm with a red, circular rash enclosed in a ring-like rash. Photo (c) shows a brown mouse with a white belly and legs and large, round ears.

Figure 2. The (a) deer tick carries the bacterium that produces Lyme disease in humans, often evident in (b) a symptomatic bull’s eye rash. The (c) white-footed mouse is one well-known host to deer ticks carrying the Lyme disease bacterium. (credit a: modification of work by Scott Bauer, USDA ARS; credit b: modification of work by James Gathany, CDC; credit c: modification of work by Rob Ireton)

More formally known as Lyme borreliosis, Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that can be transmitted to humans when they are bitten by the deer tick (Ixodes scapularis), which is the primary vector for this disease. However, not all deer ticks carry the bacteria that will cause Lyme disease in humans, and I. scapularis can have other hosts besides deer. In fact, it turns out that the probability of infection depends on the type of host upon which the tick develops: a higher proportion of ticks that live on white-footed mice carry the bacterium than do ticks that live on deer. Knowledge about the environments and population densities in which the host species is abundant would help a physician or an epidemiologist better understand how Lyme disease is transmitted and how its incidence could be reduced.

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