Ecological Research Methods: Observation, Modeling & Experimentation

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  • 0:01 What Is Ecology?
  • 1:38 Observation
  • 2:30 Modeling
  • 3:17 Experimentation
  • 4:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

What is ecology? And how do ecologists research ecosystems? Learn about the three main research methods: observation (including direct and indirect surveying), modeling, and experimentation in or outside the lab.

What Is Ecology?

The natural world is interconnected in ways that are complex and hard to digest. If you've ever studied food webs, you know that each animal in a particular ecosystem affects the others. If a particular bird of prey is being affected by a deadly disease, the population of the animals they feed on will increase.

And if a particular type of plant is being out-competed by something humans introduced, that will affect the animals that feed off of those plants. Any change to an ecosystem affects other parts of it. Ecology is about understanding those effects.

Ecology is the study of how organisms relate to one another and to their surroundings. Unlike biology, which focuses more on the way the bodies of animals and plants work, and zoology, which focuses more on animal behavior, ecology is specifically focused on the relationships between them. Understanding those relationships can be difficult, and so research is at the heart of the process. Ecosystems are changing all the time, both due to natural fluctuations, and to the huge influence that humans are having on species around the world.

In fact, we're currently experiencing one of the largest extinction events in the history of the world. We call this the Holocene extinction, because the Holocene is the period in history where humans are the dominant force on Earth. This makes it super important that we study ecology, so we can understand the changes that are happening right now.

Let's go through some of the main research methods used by ecologists and talk about what they involve. The three main research methods used are observation, modeling, and experimentation.


Observation is exactly what it sounds like: it's where you watch the natural world, both plants and animals, usually over long periods of time to see what changes happen. Most natural environmental changes happen over very long periods. However, as we study human effects, that time period is getting shorter.

Ecologists observe populations in many ways. They might capture and release animals, taking blood samples and assessing their health, and radio collaring them so they can track their movements. Or they might do simple surveys, counting the animals they see.

Direct surveys are where scientists observe animals directly using their eyes or tools like binoculars. Indirect surveys are where scientists look for signs of animals, like their feces or the remains of prey. By collecting this kind of data regularly, they can figure out how populations are changing.


Modeling involves creating representations of real-life phenomena, either physically, or these days more often on a computer. There are many kinds of models that ecologists might use. For example, they might put GPS tags on animals, and then use the computer to create a model of the animal's movements.

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