WHAT IS
ECOLOGY?

Grandma's yardOften we hear people say something like, "Pollution is destroying our ecology." That makes "ecology" sound like the state of health of our natural surroundings. Many biologists would insist that it's wrong to use the word "ecology" like that.

Since the word ends with "-ology," like biology, geology, zoology, etc., it's clear that "ecology" is actually the study of something. Ecology is the study of how living things and their environment interact with one another.

EXAMPLES OF ECOLOGY

Therefore, if you study how leaf-eating insects affect a tree's growth rate, you're studying an aspect of ecology. The same is true if you study how spraying insecticides to control mosquitoes affects local frog populations, if you study how weather patterns influence the timing of bird migration, and if you study how traffic noise from a busy highway affects squirrel nesting habits.

Even if your backyard is not as flowery as my Grandmother Taylor's side-yard shown in the picture, you should be able to find plenty of "ecology" in your backyard. Just about  wherever the sun shines, there's fresh air and a little soil, you should find plants and animals interacting with their environment -- you should find things the ecology of which will be fascinating to study.

QUESTIONS AN ECOLOGIST MIGHT ASK

You can sit on Grandma's porch and for hours study pollination in the white and pink azaleas at the porch's corner, just beyond the plaster deer in the picture, and you can wonder what would happen to the local ecology if the pollinators there didn't have the azaleas to visit. Would it make a difference? Are the human-planted azaleas possibly distracting pollinators from visiting plants that really should be pollinated for the sake of the whole ecosystem, or are the azaleas helping the pollinators survive a "dry period," when other plants aren't blossoming much? If you wonder about such questions and then begin studying the situation, you're studying ecology.

BACKYARD ECOLOGY

In Grandma's yard, if you lie down and poke your nose in the grass around the deer, or explore the woodchips strewn among the deer, you'll stir up all kinds of insects and other arthropods. If you catch Grandma not looking, you can tilt over those plaster deer a little and in the moist soil beneath the statues' bases you can find earthworms, centipedes and millipedes, and white strands of webby fungus, all doing fascinating things, and all participating in the nutrient cycles, energy pathways, food pyramids -- the web of life of Grandma's backyard which, when you study it, you're studying ecology. In other words, just about everyplace you look, even in your backyard, there are ecological things to think about!

ECOLOGY'S BEGINNING ASSUMPTION

If there is a "beginning assumption" in the field of ecology, perhaps it is this:

Nature's living organisms (humans included) depend on one another.

HUMANS & ECOLOGY

If there is an insight especially appropriate for backyard ecologists, it is that humans are also animals, and that our human communities are just as dependent on access to clean water, clean air, the fruits of healthy soil, and the joys of open space, as the lowest worm, and the most obscure sprig of crabgrass.


For a fine description of the web of life in a common backyard compost heap, check out the Web page called Invertebrates of the Compost Pile, sponsored by Cornell University.

Cite this page as:
Conrad, Jim. Last updated . Page title: Retrieved from The Backyard Nature Website at .