In discussions of environment, lots of terms are used to describe biological communities, from biomes and habitats to food webs and ecosystems, but it’s the latter of these that deserves our special attention.
Deserts, rainforests, lakes and even small puddles that form after a storm can all be described as types of ecosystems.
An ecosystem is an ecological unit in which the soil, air, light, water and all living organisms have roles to play in making their community function, helping it stay intact and healthy.
Take away any single element that contributes to an ecosystem and the entire community is changed, often in the form of a chain reaction that may destroy it entirely.
For example, if you remove the sunlight from a jungle ecosystem, plants will not be able to photosynthesize and will subsequently die out. Herbivores will then have no food source and die out or leave the ecosystem. Then, the carnivores that prey on the herbivores will run out of their food source, and will also die out or leave.
Similarly, if the carnivores are hunted to extinction, the herbivore population goes unchecked, devouring more and more of the plant life, potentially denuding the jungle area and turning it into a wasteland.
The major parts of an ecosystem include soil, atmosphere, heat and sunlight, water, and living organisms. An ecosystem with a huge diversity of species is a healthy ecosystem. It is less likely to be seriously compromised by natural disasters, climate change and human interaction.
The organisms that populate an ecosystem are divided into three categories: producers, consumers and decomposers.
Producers are the green plants that create their own food out of soil, water and light. Consumers are animals that feed off the producers or plants and also those that eat other animals.
The decomposers are the plants, animals, insects and microorganisms that decompose or break down the dead plants and animals into organic compost, returning their remains to the soil. From there, the cycle starts again. Elton John’s song “Circle of Life” comes to mind.
Everyday we are discovering and learning about other species that are new to us. We are just now figuring out and understanding the functions they have in their natural ecosystems.
It would be misleading to say that ecosystems play a major role in the existence of our natural world. Ecosystems are more than that. They literally are our world, and humans are just one species within the community we call Earth.
More than any other creature, humans have the power to affect ecosystems, for better or worse. Through our actions or inaction, we can reshape or protect terrain, destroy or protect species, clean or pollute the Earth’s water, air and soil.
Perhaps our most important role, then, is to be the stewards of this global community, helping to keep our planet healthy by studying and maintaining biodiversity, while preserving the balance that all ecosystems require.
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