Ecology is the scientific study of interactions between living things and the environments they live in (or ecosystems). Ecology is not just one type of scientific study – it draws from research in many other areas.
There are three main areas of science that ecology uses to understand interactions between living things and their home environment:
- Evolution explores characteristics that are passed from one generation of living things to another and how these characteristics can change over many generations.
- Genetics explores of how these characteristics are determined in living things. The instructions for these characteristics (like your hair colour, eye colour and the shape of your nose) are carried in deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).
- Ethology is the study of animal behaviour – why animals act in specific ways at specific times or in response to changes in their environment.
Why is it important?
The main message from these three ecologists is that there are many reasons why ecology is important:
- “It is important to know about how animals and plants live in case they get into trouble so that scientists know how to help them. For example, ecology is helping save our inanga (whitebait). Scientists know that inanga lay their eggs in plants on the sides of rivers. inanga are in trouble, and there aren’t many left because they have nowhere to lay their eggs. Scientists have put haybales beside rivers, and now the inanga can lay their eggs there so we can have many more inanga.”
Tara McAllister @taramcallister4, freshwater ecologist, University of Canterbury
- “Ecology helps us understand how living things interact with their environments. In my work, I look at the influence of weather conditions on plant water use, and from this, I can improve our understanding of the water cycle in a changing climate. Plants (and particularly forests) are an important part of the water cycle as they return water to the atmosphere via transpiration. Ecology helps me describe this process.”
Cate Macinnis-Ng catemacinnisng.wordpress.com, @LoraxCate, forest ecologist, University of Auckland
- “Ecology is important, not just because it’s fascinating to learn about the beautiful complexity of life, but also because we’re part of it! We act in so many ecosystems and lots more provide services for us: flood defences, food supply, natural resources and many more. All very important!”
Robin Hayward robinmhayward.com; @CanopyRobin, rainforest ecologist, University of Stirling, Scotland
You can find more reasons by looking at their websites or Twitter and on other websites such as What does ecology have to do with me?
Nature of science
Building curiosity about the world around us is important to foster in our young children.
Some things to think about
These questions are prompts to get your students thinking about ecology and applying their knowledge about why it is important to their local environment:
- Can you describe your own ecosystem? Think about where you live, what you eat and drink and what things you might change when changes happen in your ecosystem. What are some ecosystems in your local area?
- What are some parts of an ecosystem you see every day?
- Can you describe a local ecosystem?
- Can you think of other reasons ecology might be important? If you are studying a local ecosystem, why might it be especially important to you or your local community?
- If certain parts of a local ecosystem were damaged or restored, how might it affect the ecosystem overall? How would it change it? Could this effect spread elsewhere?
The article Understanding ecology and the activity Freshwater ecosystem will support teaching and learning about ecology and living things.
Explore New Zealand’s unique native biodiversity.
The activity Living or non-living? will help further with the concept from a scientific point of view.
This article was written by Susan Rapley, a volunteer outreach educator with the North Otago Museum.