Ecological Study

From learning about animal evolution to maintaining an ancient forest... ecological studies have shaped our modern understanding of the world in the past one hundred years. 

Ecological Study Ecological Study

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    Much more awaits as we develop new techniques and technologies to explore the world around us, from laboratory assays to night-vision cameras. Let us find out how many types of ecological studies there are, and which ones you could conduct yourself!

    Ecological Study Definition

    Ecology is the branch that studies organisms and their environment! In order to study these organisms without disturbing them, specific methods must be employed.

    An ecological study refers to the efforts undertaken to elucidate the interaction of biotic and abiotic factors in a natural environment.

    These studies usually comprise combined analyses of more than one factor. These can include:

    • Soil type, organic content and pH. E.g. podzol soils, low organic content, acidic.

    • Species population density and size. E.g. spread of coniferous species such as cedars and pines in Canadian podzols.

    • Effects of noise and light pollution on the environment. E.g. logging and tourism in the Sayward Forest, Vancouver Island, Canada.

    It is necessary for an ecological study to be conducted in a dynamic environment, which the outdoors can provide, in order to observe the nature of relationships between animal, bacterial, etc. communities.

    A dynamic outdoor environment differs from a laboratory one in that it is self-sustaining and open-ended, meaning that there are free choices residing species can take, with unknown evolutionary ramifications into the future. In a lab-created environment, the choice of food, activities, etc. are limited.

    Abiotic refers to the non-living elements of an environment, such as pH and temperature, whereas biotic refers to living cells.

    Fieldwork helps obtain essential direct and indirect data on the state of the environment.

    Direct means observing species first-hand (or through the help of camera traps), whereas indirect means analysing animal waste or other signs indicating their presence (broken twigs, urine markings, etc.).

    Ecological Study Examples

    There are many examples of famous ecological studies conducted all over the world. Species population dynamics can be extrapolated from territory analysis, food availability, vegetation cover and soil types, general climatic conditions, human encroachment, or the likelihood of emerging diseases.

    To extrapolate means to extract the unknown factor from a sequence or an extended string of known values or facts.

    Charles Darwin on the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

    Charles Darwin was an English naturalist who carried out research on a number of different islands from the Galápagos Archipelago. Observations of endemic species (e.g. Florean-Giant Tortoises being eaten by sailors and prisoners) were paired with dissections (e.g. of marine iguanas, to understand their nutrition), journal notes, rough sketches, and specimen collection.

    An endemic species is one that is found in a limited, defined geographical area.

    His theories and findings from the Galápagos Islands significantly advanced the public and scientific knowledge of evolutionary biology.

    'Over 75% of Darwin’s notes from the Beagle voyage consist of geological observations.'1

    The Galápagos environment is characterised by volcanic landscapes (with rocks such as basalt), and is subject to El Niño phenomena (powerful oceanic and wind currents). It benefits from coastal and highland terrain dominated by shrubbery subject to an arid climate. Some of the islands have fertile soils owing to their recent volcanic past, which are being cultivated by people.

    Darwin's ecological studies included:

    • Generational morphologic (body shape and functions) adaptations
    • The branching out of different subspecies from one species on remote islands
    • The evolution of organisms by natural selection
    • Fauna and flora interactions

    The tourism and human population bloom are leading causes of animal species loss at the moment on and around the Galápagos Islands.

    Dian Fossey on Mountain Gorillas, Rwanda

    Dian Fossey was an American primatologist (the scientific study of primates) who helped put the basis of the longest-running research site (called Karioske) on gorillas in the world. She travelled from the United States for research and established a permanent camp in Congo and then Rwanda. Information obtained from her studies on gorillas included:

    • Births and deaths

    • The movement of females between group

    • Feeding and plant species in African tropical rainforests

    • Dominance displays, overtakes, and group interactions2.

    Other important data that can be collected and analysed nowadays, includes:

    • genetic diversity (genotyping technology)

    • low-light or nighttime observations (infrared motion-trigger cameras)

    • poaching and illegal trade observations (drones)

    Genotyping technology represents any materials, chemical substances, computers, databases, etc. used in the processing and understanding of genetic material obtained from a species.

    The Volcanoes National Park in which Dian conducted her activities benefits from a humid, tropical temperate climate, cooled by the general elevation of the park. It is characterised by bamboo and alpine forests, as well as Afro-alpine meadows.

    Simona Kossak on the Białowieża Forest, Poland

    Simona Kossak was a Polish biologist that focused on the mammalian behavioural ecology in the Bialowieza forest, where she spent most of her time, living in a log cabin. Her research helped preserve what is now the largest oldest primeval forest of Europe.

    Primeval forests are those that contain a large number of living, old or ancient trees, usually over 300 years old, as well as a high volume of dead wood, up to half of the total wood volume of the forest.

    The Bialowieza forest is a mix of deciduous (maple, oak, hornbeam, etc.) and coniferous trees (spruce, pine, etc.). It benefits from a humid temperate-continental climate. Information studied by Simona included:

    • Wild animal rehabilitation and taming
    • Trophic (food web) relations in mixed deciduous forests
    • Anthropogenic effects on forest ecosystems (logging, forestry management, etc.)

    Additionally, she studied animal fear response mechanisms in the wild, especially of ungulates (large mammals with hooves) like roe deer, and helped design UOZ-1 repellers.

    UOZ-1 repellers are sound devices mounted near railways that teach animals to fear and avoid the tracks when trains approach, through the auditory signals produced. Avoiding forest railway tracks is something animals may fail to do as modern trains get faster and less noisy.

    Ecological Study Design

    Ecological study design is the process of planning and conducting ecological research in a way that minimises bias and maximises the chances of accurately identifying relationships between different elements of an ecosystem.

    These studies can be done through observation, modelling and experimentation.

    Step 1:

    The first step in ecological study design is to identify the goals of the research and the questions that need to be answered.

    Step 2:

    Once these have been decided, the next step is to choose an appropriate study site. The chosen site should be large enough to allow for replication and ecological variability, but also small enough to be identifiable.

    Step 3:

    After the site has been selected, the next step is to design sampling techniques that will accurately capture the desired data. Observation at this point allows ecologists to gather data on the behaviour and distribution of organisms in the wild.

    Finally, once all data have been collected, it is important to carefully analyse and interpret the results in order to draw conclusions about the relationships between different elements of the ecosystem.

    This data can then be used to develop models that help to explain how these organisms interact with their environment.

    Experimentation may be an optional step, which allows ecologists to test these models by manipulating environmental conditions and observing the effects on the behaviour of organisms, for example in a greenhouse.

    Nowadays, it has become harder to find undisturbed ecological communities, or separate them from the effects of anthropogenic activities.

    Humans are included in ecological studies as well.

    Ecological Study of Epidemiology

    Ecological studies that focus on epidemiology focus specifically on the disease aspects and interactions within the wildlife populations. Various comparisons are made, relating to:

    • Geographical factors: death or number of infections correlated with certain geographical areas

    • Time trends: rates of infection varying by year, season, etc.

    • Climatic influence: rates of infection being associated with precipitation patterns, changes in water or soil pH, natural disaster occurrence, etc.

    While conducting ecological studies, students need to be aware of the risk of zoonotic and anthroponotic diseases.

    Zoonotic diseases, also called zoonosis, refers to pathogens that jump from non-human hosts to human hosts, often via immunocompromised or weakened individuals, or via natural evolution.

    Anthrax, cowpox, or monkeypox can spread from animals to humans.3

    Reverse zoonosis refers to human pathogenic reservoirs being a risk for animals.

    Gorillas and other primates are especially sensitive to influenza (flu) virus strains and the SARS-CoV-2 virus (which causes Covid). Giardia and tuberculosis can also be passed from humans to dogs and even to beavers.

    Advantages of Ecological Study

    The advantage of some ecological communities, such as agroecosystems, is that they have evolved together with human settlements, both on European flatlands and in Amazonian jungles. Humans can be a more 'comfortable' part of ecological studies in these cases.

    Ecological studies tell us more about:

    • Effects on human communities of natural dynamics

    • Effects of human communities on the natural environment

    Ecological studies can positively shift:

    • Species population trends: through a better understanding of what drives population numbers down, especially if the animal is endangered (e.g. Diane Fossey's research impact on the conservation of gorillas and the rate of poaching)

    • The protection of a larger habitat: studying a single species means studying the elements that help it survive, such as nesting sites and preferred food. This leads to a broader understanding of all interacting species or even of the geological formations within the habitat (e.g. caves and cliffs), and including them in all conservation efforts.

    • Climate change aggravation: efficient conservation leads to climate change mitigation, through the prevention of accidental wildfires or the elimination of key organisms from the carbon chain (specific plankton species).

    • Public awareness: as society's awareness of its own actions and effects grows, people understand what measures they can take to preserve and enjoy the natural environment for longer.

    Ecological studies carried on field are important because they allow for the testing and application of ecological (scientific) theories.

    Ecological theory refers to the variety of hypotheses that are in testing or have been proven, about the nature and influence of natural interactions, from chemical interactions, to social ones.

    The effects of abiotic factors, such as light and nutrition, on biotic factors, such as the rate and quality of tissue growth.

    Conceptual and mathematical models are created on computers or paper. They are then visualised or simulated. Different scenarios can pass through different parameter settings, each with different outcomes, until patterns are recognised, and the result can be reproduced indefinitely by other testers as well.

    Types of Ecological Studies

    There are many different types of ecological studies, each designed to answer specific questions about the natural world. Methods used to conduct these studies include field observations, data collection for sending back to a laboratory, experiments, and modelling.

    Ecologists may study:

    • the interaction between a particular species and its environment

    • the distribution of plants and animals across a landscape

    • the impact of human activity on an ecosystem.

    Species part of these researches may be photographed, marked with tags or rings, collared with radio-transmitters (which send radio signals to satellites or devices that can track their movements), or have blood or tissue extracted from them.

    Last but not least, these studies can be carried out on areas as small as one square foot, or as large as 10 football fields or more, put together.

    Photographer David Liittschwager crafted a 1-square-foot metal cube and placed it in a range of ecosystems: land and water, tropical and temperate, freshwater and marine. Over several weeks at each location, Liittschwager and a team of biologists found, identified, and photographed small creatures that passed through the cube.4


    By understanding how these different components interact, through ecological studies, ecologists can gain insights into the complex processes that shape ecosystems. In turn, this knowledge can be used to help conserve biodiversity and manage environmental resources in a sustainable way.

    Ecological Study - Key takeaways

    • An ecological study comprises different types of biotic and abiotic information extracted from collected field data.
    • Water pH and soils, animal populations, vegetation cover or anthropogenic influences, and similar, can all be part of ecological studies.
    • Research and ecological studies from around the world help advance our knowledge about the natural world and have led to the development of evolution theories, primeval forest maintenance, the transmission of diseases from humans to wild animals, etc.
    • Scientific theories can more accurately be tested in open, self-sustaining environments.
    • Ecological studies play an undisputed role in helping mitigate climate change and changing public awareness and understanding.

    References

    1. Geoscientist, Early settler - Darwin the geologist in the Galápagos, 2009
    2. Gorillafund, Scientific Research Critical to Conservation Strategy, 2022
    3. Ekaterine Khmaladze et al., Geographic distribution and genetic characterization of poxviruses from human infections in Georgia, 2009–2014, 2021
    4. National Geographic (Jeff Hunt et al.), Field work, 2022.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Ecological Study

    What is an ecological study?

    An ecological study is the effort undertaken to understand how the biotic and abiotic factors of an environment interact. 

    What is the purpose of an ecological study?

    The purpose of an ecological study is to achieve a better scientific understanding of the natural environment, curb species loss and climate change, ensure good decision-making and resource allocation, etc. 


    What is an ecological study in epidemiology?

    An ecological study in epidemiology is an evaluation of the organisms and their ambiental factors such as temperature and humidity which can lead to different types or degrees of infections. 

    What is the difference between an ecological study and a cross-sectional study?

    The difference between an ecological study and a cross-sectional study is that the latter concentrates on a very specific type of interaction whereas ecological studies include more co-existing factors.


    What are some advantages of ecological studies? 

    Some advantages of ecological studies include positively shifting population trends, habitat protection, bettering public awareness, helping mitigate climate change, etc. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which one is usually NOT part of an ecological study?

    UOZ-1 repellers were usually mounted near...

    One of the purposes of ecological research is the elimination of...

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