Ecosystem Ecology: Definition & Explanation

Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

What powers life? How much energy do animals get from eating plants? What short- and long-term effects will climate change have on our environment? Asking questions such as these help ecologists better understand ecosystems and the processes within them.


Ecosystems are the natural systems that are made up of living and non-living things working together. Ecosystems come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and while they share many features, each is unique. Ecosystems do have boundaries, but determining where one ecosystem starts and another begins can often be a challenge.

Because ecosystems have so many components and contain so much important information about our natural world, a very specific field of study was developed called ecosystem ecology. While the actual study of ecosystems has been going on for much longer, the term for the study of whole, living systems was developed in 1942. A person studying ecosystems is an ecosystem ecologist.

Studying Systems

Ecosystem ecologists do study overall systems, but in order to understand the system as a whole they need to look at the individual parts and what those parts contribute. This means that ecosystem ecologists are generally interdisciplinary - being involved in many different fields of study.

Ecosystem ecologists look at relationships between organisms and their environment. For example, in an aquatic ecosystem, an ecosystem ecologist might examine the relationships between the aquatic environment and the plants and animals that call it home.

Ecosystem ecologists may ask themselves questions to help them better understand ecosystems. For example, they may ask how sunlight and nutrients affect plants, and how those plants affect the animals that eat them.

Ecosystem ecologists are also interested in the biological processes that occur in ecosystems such as nutrient cycling, production, and trophic interactions (how energy gets transferred from one level of the food chain to another).

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