BASIC ECOLOGICAL LITERACY: A FIRST CUT
(Published in the Ecological Society of America
Education Section Newsletter. June 1991. 2 (1): 4-5.)
Within the past decade, we have all
witnessed a dramatic increase
in the public's concern over education, especially science education.
Of course, this concern has extended to ecology, where ecologists and
non-ecologists alike realize the need for ecological concepts to be
accurately taught to students in primary and secondary schools, to
undergraduates, and to adults. The importance of a sound
ecology-education strategy was emphasized in the "Sustainable
Biosphere Initiative", published by the Ecological Society of America
(Ecology 72: 371-412).
Those people who are responsible for
implementing a sound
ecology-education program at any level are confronted by several
challenges. First, as most ecologists realize, ecology itself is
highly interdisciplinary and intergrades into other areas of biology
like systematics, physiology, genetics, behavior and evolution, as
well as into physical sciences like chemistry, meteorology, physics
and earth science. Moreover, ecology relates to many applied areas
such as resource management, agronomics, forestry, environmental
toxicology, and wildlife biology. Thus, the definition as to what
exactly comprises "ecology" is often difficult to delineate from that
which is "not ecology".
A second challenge is that the field
is rapidly changing and even
the most basic concepts are often called into question. As a result,
the notion that there is no central dogma of ecology (as we have in
the most of the physical sciences and in many areas of biology like
genetics, molecular biology, and anatomy) occasionally troubles many
of us who teach ecology.
A third challenge is that professional
ecologists' views of the
discipline are highly idiosyncratic, depending upon the facet of
ecology in which a particular person is engaged and upon the
ecosystem that that person studies. Thus, an invertebrate biologist's
perspective is often substantially different from a botanist's. A
person dealing with coral reefs often has a different view than one
examining montane forests.
Despite these challenges, the mandate
is clear for a sound
ecology-education strategy to be developed as quickly as possible.
One key element of such a strategy is for a decision to be made as to
what comprises basic ecological literacy. Clearly, such a definition
should come from professional ecologists, but no such widely
agreed-upon definition apparently exists. Therefore, the ESA -
particularly members of the Education Section - should ponder,
debate, and arrive at a consensus as to what comprises basic
ecological literacy. Of course, we all hope that most people's
understanding should go beyond the basic level (i.e., those who are
or were undergraduate biology majors and those who work in areas that
bear upon organismal biology should have a rather sophisticated
understanding of many ecological phenomena). Still, however, some
explicit definition of the basic is still needed.
To get the process moving, I offer my
own thoughts as to those
concepts that deserve to be part of basic ecological literacy, and
should be understood by every person by the time that he or she
enters adulthood. I realize that this list is just a first attempt
and it will probably be modified greatly. It is in that spirit that I
put it before you, and now request your response.
ELEVEN BASIC ECOLOGICAL CONCEPTS
1. Ecology is the part of biology that
interrelationships between organisms and their environment. It also
draws heavily upon, and contributes to, other areas of biology, other
sciences like chemistry, physics, meteorology, and earth science, as
well as to other fields like mathematics, economics, medicine and
sociology. As practitioners of a basic science, ecologists seek an
accurate understanding of natural phenomena through observation and
experimentation. At the same time, ecologists seek to utilize the
gathered information toward preserving the ability of the earth to
sustain all forms of life (including humans). Like those of other
sciences, ecological concepts can change based on new findings and on
new interpretions of old data.
2. In nature, a variety of physical
and biological factors
influence an organism's ability to grow and reproduce in any one
3. There is variability in the way
that different species respond
to the environment, and that causes them to have different ranges.
However, a species' actual presence on a site depends upon its
ability to disperse onto that site, as well as its ability to survive
4. Organisms of a given species that
occur together comprise a
population. Populations can grow, but various environmental factors
prevent populations from growing indefinitely. Populations can also
decline to the point of extinction.
5. Species that have similar responses
to the environment are
typically found together in assemblages called communities. Each
community is unique, but those occurring in similar environments are
generally similar to one another. Adjacent communities often blend
into each other.
6. On any site, the organisms interact
in various ways. Some help
each other while others are harmful.
7. All of the organisms on a site,
along with its physical
environment, comprise an ecosystem.
8. All ecosystem functions depend upon
energy. In any given
ecosystem, organisms called producers obtain energy from the
non-living environment (usually the sun) and convert it into a
biologically useful form. Other organisms called consumers obtain
that energy by eating the producers and/or other consumers.
9. The bodies of all organisms are
built from chemical elements
called nutrients. In any ecosystem, producers obtain various
nutrients in the form of gasses and minerals from the air, soil,
and/or water and convert them into biologically useful forms.
Consumers obtain these nutrients by eating producers and/or other
consumers. Decomposers convert the nutrients back into their
10. Ecosystems are constantly
changing, either rapidly or slowly.
Those changes can be due to changes in physical factors, to the
arrival or local extinction of the component species, to the
organisms progressing through their life cycles, to altered
relationships between the species, and to the species changing by
11. More than any other species,
humans have changed the earth's
ecosystems. At present, ecologists are particularly concerned about
preservation of biological diversity, the effects of global climate
change, and the ability of ecosystems to sustain life.
This page posted and maintained
by Kenneth M.
Klemow, Ph.D., Biology Department,
Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre,
PA 18766. (570) 408-4758,