(Published in the Ecological Society of America Education Section Newsletter. June 1991. 2 (1): 4-5.)

Kenneth M. Klemow
Department of Biology, Wilkes University
Wilkes-Barre, PA 18766

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.


1. Ecology is the part of biology that examines the 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 place.

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 its environment.

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 non-biological form.

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 evolution.

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,