What Is Ecology?

Learning Outcomes

  • Define the science of ecology

Ecology is the study of the interactions of living things with their environment. Ecologists ask questions across four levels of biological organization—organismal, population, community, and ecosystem. At the organismal level, ecologists study individual organisms and how they interact with their environments. At the population and community levels, ecologists explore, respectively, how a population of organisms changes over time and the ways in which that population interacts with other species in the community. Ecologists studying an ecosystem examine the living species (the biotic components) of the ecosystem as well as the nonliving portions (the abiotic components), such as air, water, and soil, of the environment.


This photo shows a woman looking into a small cage with its door open. The cage sits on short prairie grass, next to a hole with dirt around the rim. In the background sits a second, closed cage.

Figure 1. This landscape ecologist is releasing a black-footed ferret into its native habitat as part of a study. (credit: USFWS Mountain Prairie Region, NPS)

A career in ecology contributes to many facets of human society. Understanding ecological issues can help society meet the basic human needs of food, shelter, and health care. Ecologists can conduct their research in the laboratory and outside in natural environments. These natural environments can be as close to home as the stream running through your campus or as far away as the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Ecologists manage natural resources such as white-tailed deer populations (Odocoileus virginianus) for hunting or aspen (Populus spp.) timber stands for paper production. Ecologists also work as educators who teach children and adults at various institutions including universities, high schools, museums, and nature centers. Ecologists may also work in advisory positions assisting local, state, and federal policymakers to develop laws that are ecologically sound, or they may develop those policies and legislation themselves. To become an ecologist requires an undergraduate degree, usually in a natural science. The undergraduate degree is often followed by specialized training or an advanced degree, depending on the area of ecology selected. Ecologists should also have a broad background in the physical sciences, as well as a sound foundation in mathematics and statistics.

Visit this site to see Stephen Wing, a marine ecologist from the University of Otago, discuss the role of an ecologist and the types of issues ecologists explore.

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