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Theoretical and empirical studies identify non-random emergent patterns of few strong and many weak linkages that explain how ecological communities remain stable over time. This increases food web stability. Biodiversity within ecosystems can be organized into trophic pyramids, in which the vertical dimension represents feeding relations that become further removed from the base of the food chain up toward top predators, and the horizontal dimension represents the abundance or biomass at each level.
Species are broadly categorized as autotrophs or primary producers , heterotrophs or consumers , and Detritivores or decomposers. Autotrophs are organisms that produce their own food production is greater than respiration by photosynthesis or chemosynthesis. Heterotrophs are organisms that must feed on others for nourishment and energy respiration exceeds production.
It has been suggested that omnivores have a greater functional influence as predators, because compared to herbivores, they are relatively inefficient at grazing. Trophic levels are part of the holistic or complex systems view of ecosystems. This has led some ecologists to "reiterate that the notion that species clearly aggregate into discrete, homogeneous trophic levels is fiction.
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A keystone species is a species that is connected to a disproportionately large number of other species in the food-web. Keystone species have lower levels of biomass in the trophic pyramid relative to the importance of their role. The many connections that a keystone species holds means that it maintains the organization and structure of entire communities. The loss of a keystone species results in a range of dramatic cascading effects that alters trophic dynamics, other food web connections, and can cause the extinction of other species.
Sea otters Enhydra lutris are commonly cited as an example of a keystone species; because, they limit the density of sea urchins that feed on kelp. If sea otters are removed from the system, the urchins graze until the kelp beds disappear, and this has a dramatic effect on community structure. It is difficult to experimentally determine what species may hold a keystone role in each ecosystem. Furthermore, food web theory suggests that keystone species may not be common, so it is unclear how generally the keystone species model can be applied. Complexity is understood as a large computational effort needed to piece together numerous interacting parts exceeding the iterative memory capacity of the human mind.
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Global patterns of biological diversity are complex. This biocomplexity stems from the interplay among ecological processes that operate and influence patterns at different scales that grade into each other, such as transitional areas or ecotones spanning landscapes.
Complexity stems from the interplay among levels of biological organization as energy, and matter is integrated into larger units that superimpose onto the smaller parts. Holism remains a critical part of the theoretical foundation in contemporary ecological studies. Holism addresses the biological organization of life that self-organizes into layers of emergent whole systems that function according to non-reducible properties.
This means that higher order patterns of a whole functional system, such as an ecosystem , cannot be predicted or understood by a simple summation of the parts. Ecological studies are necessarily holistic as opposed to reductionistic. Scientific holism differs from mysticism that has appropriated the same term.
An example of metaphysical holism is identified in the trend of increased exterior thickness in shells of different species. The reason for a thickness increase can be understood through reference to principles of natural selection via predation without need to reference or understand the biomolecular properties of the exterior shells. Ecology and evolutionary biology are considered sister disciplines of the life sciences.
Natural selection , life history , development , adaptation , populations , and inheritance are examples of concepts that thread equally into ecological and evolutionary theory. Morphological, behavioural, and genetic traits, for example, can be mapped onto evolutionary trees to study the historical development of a species in relation to their functions and roles in different ecological circumstances.
In this framework, the analytical tools of ecologists and evolutionists overlap as they organize, classify, and investigate life through common systematic principals, such as phylogenetics or the Linnaean system of taxonomy. Both disciplines discover and explain emergent and unique properties and processes operating across different spatial or temporal scales of organization.
All organisms can exhibit behaviours. Even plants express complex behaviour, including memory and communication. Ethology is the study of observable movement or behaviour in animals. This could include investigations of motile sperm of plants, mobile phytoplankton , zooplankton swimming toward the female egg, the cultivation of fungi by weevils , the mating dance of a salamander , or social gatherings of amoeba. Adaptation is the central unifying concept in behavioural ecology. Behaviours can evolve by means of natural selection as adaptive traits conferring functional utilities that increases reproductive fitness.
Predator-prey interactions are an introductory concept into food-web studies as well as behavioural ecology. Many prey species are faced with multiple predators that differ in the degree of danger posed. To be adapted to their environment and face predatory threats, organisms must balance their energy budgets as they invest in different aspects of their life history, such as growth, feeding, mating, socializing, or modifying their habitat. Hypotheses posited in behavioural ecology are generally based on adaptive principles of conservation, optimization, or efficiency.
Elaborate sexual displays and posturing are encountered in the behavioural ecology of animals. The birds-of-paradise , for example, sing and display elaborate ornaments during courtship.
These displays serve a dual purpose of signalling healthy or well-adapted individuals and desirable genes. The displays are driven by sexual selection as an advertisement of quality of traits among suitors. Cognitive ecology integrates theory and observations from evolutionary ecology and neurobiology , primarily cognitive science , in order to understand the effect that animal interaction with their habitat has on their cognitive systems and how those systems restrict behavior within an ecological and evolutionary framework.
With consideration of the selection pressure on cognition, cognitive ecology can contribute intellectual coherence to the multidisciplinary study of cognition.
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Social ecological behaviours are notable in the social insects , slime moulds , social spiders , human society , and naked mole-rats where eusocialism has evolved. Social behaviours include reciprocally beneficial behaviours among kin and nest mates    and evolve from kin and group selection.
Kin selection explains altruism through genetic relationships, whereby an altruistic behaviour leading to death is rewarded by the survival of genetic copies distributed among surviving relatives. The social insects, including ants , bees , and wasps are most famously studied for this type of relationship because the male drones are clones that share the same genetic make-up as every other male in the colony.
Groups with predominantly altruistic members survive better than groups with predominantly selfish members. Ecological interactions can be classified broadly into a host and an associate relationship. A host is any entity that harbours another that is called the associate. Examples of mutualism include fungus-growing ants employing agricultural symbiosis, bacteria living in the guts of insects and other organisms, the fig wasp and yucca moth pollination complex, lichens with fungi and photosynthetic algae , and corals with photosynthetic algae.
Indirect mutualisms occur where the organisms live apart. For example, trees living in the equatorial regions of the planet supply oxygen into the atmosphere that sustains species living in distant polar regions of the planet. This relationship is called commensalism ; because, many others receive the benefits of clean air at no cost or harm to trees supplying the oxygen. Although parasites impose a cost to their host e. The Red Queen Hypothesis , for example, posits that parasites track down and specialize on the locally common genetic defense systems of its host that drives the evolution of sexual reproduction to diversify the genetic constituency of populations responding to the antagonistic pressure.
Biogeography an amalgamation of biology and geography is the comparative study of the geographic distribution of organisms and the corresponding evolution of their traits in space and time. Wilson in  is considered one of the fundamentals of ecological theory. Biogeography has a long history in the natural sciences concerning the spatial distribution of plants and animals. Ecology and evolution provide the explanatory context for biogeographical studies.
The biogeographic processes that result in the natural splitting of species explains much of the modern distribution of the Earth's biota. The splitting of lineages in a species is called vicariance biogeography and it is a sub-discipline of biogeography. For example, the range and distribution of biodiversity and invasive species responding to climate change is a serious concern and active area of research in the context of global warming. For example, when an island is first colonized, density of individuals is low.
The initial increase in population size is not limited by competition, leaving an abundance of available resources for rapid population growth. These early phases of population growth experience density-independent forces of natural selection, which is called r -selection. As the population becomes more crowded, it approaches the island's carrying capacity, thus forcing individuals to compete more heavily for fewer available resources.
Under crowded conditions, the population experiences density-dependent forces of natural selection, called K -selection. An r -selected species is one that has high birth rates, low levels of parental investment, and high rates of mortality before individuals reach maturity. Evolution favours high rates of fecundity in r -selected species. Many kinds of insects and invasive species exhibit r -selected characteristics. In contrast, a K -selected species has low rates of fecundity, high levels of parental investment in the young, and low rates of mortality as individuals mature.
Humans and elephants are examples of species exhibiting K -selected characteristics, including longevity and efficiency in the conversion of more resources into fewer offspring. The important relationship between ecology and genetic inheritance predates modern techniques for molecular analysis. Molecular ecological research became more feasible with the development of rapid and accessible genetic technologies, such as the polymerase chain reaction PCR.
The rise of molecular technologies and influx of research questions into this new ecological field resulted in the publication Molecular Ecology in In , John Avise also played a leading role in this area of science with the publication of his book, Molecular Markers, Natural History and Evolution.
Molecular ecology engendered a new research paradigm for investigating ecological questions considered otherwise intractable.