What Is an Ecosystem? - Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 1:21 Classification
  • 1:35 Terrestrial
  • 3:03 Aquatic
  • 3:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
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.

Similar to a car engine that is made up of multiple parts working together, an ecosystem has interacting parts that support a whole. But how do we define an ecosystem and what are the components they consist of?

Definition of an Ecosystem

Think of your home and all of the things in it. You likely have furniture, books, food in your refrigerator, family, and maybe even pets. Your home consists of a variety of living and non-living things.

Like your home, an ecosystem is any community of living and non-living things that work together. The living things are biotic features, and the non-living things are abiotic features. While ecosystems do have boundaries, they are not always clear, and it may be difficult to see where one ecosystem ends and another begins.

Each ecosystem is unique, but all ecosystems have three basic components:

  • Autotrophs (producers of energy)
  • Heterotrophs (consumers of energy)
  • Non-living matter

Plants make up the majority of the autotrophs in an ecosystem, while most of the heterotrophs are animals. Non-living matter is the soil, sediments, leaf litter, and other organic matter on the ground or at the bottom of an aquatic system.

There are two types of ecosystems, closed and open. Closed ecosystems are ones that do not have any inputs (exchanges of energy from the surrounding environment) or outputs (exchanges of energy from within the ecosystem). Open ecosystems are ones that have both inputs and outputs.


Ecosystems come in many shapes and sizes, but classifying them helps scientists understand and manage them better. Ecosystems can be classified in a variety of ways but, most commonly, they are defined as either terrestrial or aquatic.


Terrestrial ecosystems are found on land. There are four main types of terrestrial ecosystem: tundra, taiga, temperate deciduous forest, and grassland.

Tundra is an ecosystem found at very high northern latitudes, such as northern Canada, Greenland, and Siberia. This ecosystem marks a point called the tree line because this is where it gets so cold and there is such minimal sunlight that tree growth is severely hindered.

Taiga is a little more conducive to tree growth because it is lower in latitude, but it is still fairly cold. It is also found in northern latitudes, and is the largest terrestrial ecosystem on Earth. The types of trees you would likely find here are conifers (Christmas trees).

In temperate deciduous forests is where we find deciduous trees - trees that lose their leaves every year. These are trees that turn beautiful colors of red, yellow, and orange in the fall before dropping those leaves for the winter. This type of ecosystem is found in latitudes lower than the taiga, and is where we start seeing alternating seasonal changes such as warm summers and cold winters.

Grassland is just what it sounds like - an ecosystem dominated by grasses. These are those beautiful fields of waving grasses you might picture when you think of the word 'prairie.' Grasslands can be found all over Earth (except Antarctica), and the types of grasses you would find depends on the temperature and climate.


Aquatic ecosystems are ecosystems in a body of water. There are two types of aquatic ecosystems: freshwater and marine.

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