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What Do Ecologists Study?

Virtual Research in the Classroom

Ecologists study environmental systems.

  • Environmental refers to the natural world rather than the things made by humans. However, the effects and impacts humans have on the natural world are a definite focus of these studies. 

  • Systems refers to the fact that ecology is not interested in the individual components found in the natural world in isolation, but rather in how those parts interact

Environmental systems are made up of:

Biotic factors which are the living components of an ecosystem.

Example of a Producer: Lilly

Producers are organisms that create their own energy. Examples are plants and photosynthesizing bacteria.

Example of a Consumer: Mountain GoatConsumers are organisms that eat producers or other consumers. Herbivores eat producers, carnivores eat other consumers and omnivores eat both producers and other consumers.

Example of a Decomposer: mushroom

Decomposers are organisms that consume plant and animal matter that is no longer living. Examples are earthworms, bacteria and fungi.

Abiotic factors which are the nonliving components of a system that affect the living organisms.

Abiotic Factors

Abiotic factors are grouped into four main categories.

Physiographic factors:
latitude, size of continent, distance from water
Bodies of water
Topography: elevation, slope
Climatic factors:
Air pressure
Rainfall and wind
Edaphic* factors:
(*of, produced by or influenced by the soil)
Soil composition:
clay, loam, sand, etc.
Soil pH
Minerals, salts and trace elements
Water holding capacity
Water vapor
Carbon dioxide
and their cycles

Ecologists also study the distribution of species in the landscape.

Questions they investigate include:

  • Will there be areas where the species is more common and areas where it is rare?

  • Is there an edge created by some environmental gradient?

  • Will species distribution change through time?

  • Will species distribution depend on spatial scale?

Different types of ecologist might be interested in different questions in the same environment.

Levels of Study for a Wildlife Ecologist

Levels of Study for a Plant Ecologist


How Do Ecologists Use the Scientific Method?

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Credits: What Do Ecologists Study developed for the Science Posse by Emiliano Donadio and David McKenzie with support from NSF, SER, UW

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