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Ecological Services of Plants: Types, Purpose & Benefits

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda has taught high school science for over 10 years. She has a Master's Degree in Cellular and Molecular Physiology from Tufts Medical School and a Master's of Teaching from Simmons College. She is also certified in secondary special education, biology, and physics in Massachusetts.

In this lesson we'll be looking at the benefits of plants in an ecosystem. We'll go over how plants regulate the ecosystem in terms of providing habitats, food, and regulating the carbon and oxygen cycle.

What Do Plants Do?

Think of some plants in your life. Maybe you have a house plant, or trees and grass in your yard. Now, think of some things plants do for you. Perhaps you think they clean your air in your house, or provide shade to lounge in outside. Although these are nice things they do, plants do a lot more than that. They provide oxygen for us, play a role in the carbon cycle, control global warming, and do a whole host of other things for the ecosystem.

The roles plants play in the ecosystem are called ecological services. These important jobs keep us and the rest of the ecosystem alive. Today, we'll look at four services: the role of plants in the carbon and oxygen cycle, in the water cycle, in providing nutrition, and in regulating habitats.

Carbon and Oxygen Cycle

Photosynthesis

How do we get oxygen? The answer is a process called photosynthesis. All plants go through photosynthesis, where they take in carbon dioxide and water and produce oxygen and sugar for them to grow. The plants release oxygen not only for their own use, but for other animals as well.

Cellular Respiration

As heterotrophs, we eat to get our energy. We use that food with oxygen to make ATP, or cellular energy, and carbon dioxide in a process called cellular respiration. Without oxygen, we cannot make energy and we die.

The Carbon Cycle

The carbon dioxide we produce enters the carbon cycle, where carbon is converted between sources in the ground, living things and the air. Plants take in carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, removing it from the atmosphere. Right now, there is an excess amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, causing global warming. Plants help counteract global warming because they lower atmospheric carbon dioxide. The plants use the atmospheric carbon dioxide to make sugar, in a process called carbon fixation. The carbon becomes part of the structure of plants.

Photosynthesis removes atmospheric carbon dioxide
photosynthesis

When the plants die, their structures decompose on the ground. Over time, the carbon becomes buried in layers and layers of soil. Geological processes compress the carbon, forming reserves of coal and oil. When people extract these natural resources, we burn them to make energy, which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere again. We are currently removing these solid reservoirs of carbon dioxide faster than they are being replaced, leading to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide and global warming. Trees play a valuable role in controlling this process.

Trees take in carbon dioxide in the carbon cycle
carbon cycle

Water Cycle

Plants need water to perform photosynthesis, and thus play a role in the water cycle as well. The water cycle is a process of moving water from the atmosphere, to the ground, to reservoirs and living things.

Water in the ground is taken up through the root systems in plants and delivered to other parts of the plant. Some water is used in photosynthesis, but some water evaporates into the atmosphere in a process called transpiration. Transpiration returns ground water to the atmosphere to continue the cycle.

Transpiration
transpiration

Without transpiration, water would simply sit in the ground. This can cause problems for soil health, and thus the organisms living there. It also presents a problem for rainfall. When water transpires in plants and is returned to the atmosphere, it helps form clouds and eventually rain. The rain redistributes the water to other places, providing an important resources for plants and animals all over the ecosystem.

Nutrition

Perhaps you're having a snack right now as you study. Where did your food come from? Even if you're eating beef jerky, the answer is plants. Plants provide all the food and energy needed to sustain an ecosystem. Some of your food, like fruits and vegetables, comes directly from plants. Wheat is processed into crackers and cookies. Carrots, soy beans, wheat and corn are all processed into feed for animals. The animals are then slaughtered to make meat products. So, even if you're a meat lover, your food still ultimately comes from plants.

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