Living World

Our planet, the Earth, is, as far as we know, unique in the universe. It contains life.1

Living World Living World

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    Thus said naturalist, Sir David Attenborough, in 1984. And, as far as we know, to this day, he remains correct. What separates the Earth from other planets in our solar system, and possibly the galaxy and even the universe, is an abundance of biological organisms. Our world is a living world: we share the Earth will millions of other species of living beings in a multitude of different forms, from microscopic bacteria to gargantuan blue whales.

    How do we understand the living world from a geographic perspective? What are ecosystems and biomes, and what role do animals play? Let's take a dive into our living world.

    Living World Definition

    First, let's explore the living world definition.

    We share this planet with almost nine million other living species. These species make up the living world.

    The living world includes those components of the Earth that are alive.

    But when is something considered living?

    Humans have been struggling with that question for thousands of years. Currently, something is considered alive if it meets the following seven criteria:

    • Capable of ingesting nutrition

    • Capable of growing

    • Breathes

    • Has senses and reacts to stimuli

    • Capable of some kind of movement

    • Capable of reproduction

    • Excretes waste

    Using these criteria, we can see that rocks are not alive, but coral, elephants, hawks, pine trees, phytoplankton, and alpacas are all considered living.

    What about viruses? Are they alive?

    Although viruses are sometimes considered alive, they are usually considered "close to living" rather than living. Technically speaking, viruses do not meet all of the criteria listed above. Most notably, they cannot grow and they cannot reproduce until they have infected a living organism.

    Living World Geography

    Geography is the study of place. Geographers divide geography into two broad categories: human geography and physical geography. Human geography is concerned with the political borders and social systems developed by humans, whereas physical geography is concerned with natural landscapes and processes.

    Biogeography is a subset of physical geography. Biogeography is the study of the geographic distribution of living organisms. What migrations, adaptations, environmental pressures, and evolutionary processes affect where plants and animals come to live? What sort of plants and animals would you find in a desert? Why do lions live in sub-Saharan Africa, but not in the United Kingdom? Biogeographers seek to answer these questions.

    Living world lion stretching StudySmarterFig. 1 - You won't find a lion in the UK unless it has escaped from the zoo!

    Biogeography is related to several scientific fields outside of geography, such as ecology (the study of organism interactions) and biology (the study of life). These fields are collectively referred to as the life sciences.

    In order to make sense of the living world, the life sciences have developed categories to make things more comprehensible. You may have seen, for example, a Latin name assigned to an animal. This is an animal's universal scientific name, which is used to identify the animal across cultures and languages. This Latin name uses a binomial nomenclature system; the first word identifies the genus, or group, that an animal belongs to, while the second word is a description of the species. 'Lion' translates to 'asad' in Arabic, 'simba' in Swahili, and 'aslan' in Azerbaijani; but in any language, scientists can quickly and easily identify lions as 'Panthera leo.'

    Living World Ecosystems

    Geographers have attempted to categorise and label different types of living environments to explain why certain animals live where they do.

    One of the smallest biogeographical categories is a habitat. A habitat usually describes just one species and its potential living conditions within an environment. For example, a garden habitat is suitable for a hare or hedgehog.

    An ecosystem describes a living community. It is a category that takes into account all of the living organisms in an area and their interactions with each other and their physical environment. The moorlands throughout the United Kingdom each have a grassland ecosystem. There's a lot that goes into an ecosystem: the grasses taking nourishment from the soil and sun; animals eating the grasses; animals eating other animals; decomposition and scavenging.

    Ecosystems are important because all life depends on them, even us humans. We don't live in a vacuum! The food we eat, the resources we use, and the air we breath are all components of various ecosystems. For more information, be sure to check out our explanation on Ecosystems!

    The world can be divided into groups of different major ecosystems. A world ecosystem or global ecosystem is the largest biogeographical unit. World ecosystems are called biomes.

    Biomes include the tropical rainforest biome; the temperate rainforest biome; the temperate grassland biome; the savanna grassland biome; the desert biome; the polar biome; and the coral reef biome.

    The temperate grassland biome includes all of the different temperate grassland ecosystems in the world.

    Living world temperate grassland biome map StudySmarterFig. 2 - The temperate grassland biome includes all of the different temperate grasslands in the world

    Not all geographers agree on the number of biomes. Some divide the world into only five broad biomes, while others may divide the world into 30 or more different biomes! You can learn more by reading our explanation on Biomes.

    Some biogeographers use different sets of units for categorising different parts of the world. For example, instead of using global ecosystems/biomes as the biggest biogeographical unit, some biogeographers use biogeographic realms. The scale goes something like this:

    • Ecosystem

    • Ecoregion: A geographic region with multiple similar ecosystems.

    • Bioregion: A group of ecoregions, whose borders are defined by major topographical boundaries.

    • Biogeographic realm/Ecozone: the division of broad types of bioregions, based mainly on evolutionary history and topographic boundaries.

    Although biomes and biogeographic realms are similar, biogeographic realms take more physical geography into account, rather than plants' and animals' habitats, communities, and living conditions.

    Components of the Living World

    The two broad types of components in any ecosystem are abiotic and biotic. Abiotic components are non-living. Dirt, solar energy, rocky outcrops, and weather patterns are all abiotic components.

    But here, we're concerned with the biotic, or living, components. Biotic components are anything that is alive. Traditionally, living organisms are grouped into five different communities called kingdoms. Take a look at the table below.

    KingdomDescriptionExamples of Organisms
    Monera (bacteria and archaea)Single-celled organisms without a nucleusE. Coli, Wolbachia, Salmonella
    FungiStationary, plant-like organisms that feed on carbon, especially through decompositionMushrooms, yeasts, molds
    Plantae (plants)Organisms that conduct photosynthesisTrees, grasses, cacti
    Animalia (animals)Mobile organisms that breathe oxygen and consume carbon life-formsHumans, frogs, sharks, turkeys, spiders
    Protista (protists)The 'leftovers'; organisms that don't quite fit anywhere elseAlgae; amoebas

    Living components interact with each other. For example, some animals eat plants, while some animals eat other animals. Additionally, animal or plant remains may be decomposed by fungi or bacteria.

    Living World of Animals

    The most relatable element of an ecosystem is the animals. In fact, we humans are animals in ecosystems!

    Within an ecosystem, plants are usually considered producers, which means that they can serve as an initial source of energy. Animals are considered consumers: they gain energy from producers and from each other.

    Because most animals are mobile consumers, animals help shape landscapes. When animals consume fruit, they can spread the seeds to other locations. When animals eat grasses, trees, and shrubs, they can increase or decrease various types of plant life. When animals prey on each other, the 'leftovers' provide meals for scavengers and fungi, and the decomposition helps fill the soil with nutrients.

    Some ecosystems have keystone species, an animal so important to an ecosystem that the entire ecosystem revolves around it. On the Great Plains of the United States, a temperate grassland ecosystem, bison were a keystone species. Every other animal living on the Great Plains was in some way, directly or indirectly, affected by bison activity. Bison rolling, grazing, and foraging spread seeds across the grasslands and carved out habitats for ground-dwelling birds. Bison were the primary food source for Great Plains predators, like wolves and even humans, and bison faeces acted as fertilizer for the grasses.

    Living world keystone species bison StudySmarterFig. 3 - Bison were a keystone species of the American Great Plains

    When keystone species are removed from an ecosystem, that ecosystem becomes degraded. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the bison were deliberately overhunted to make way for cattle grazing; railroad expansion; and to undermine the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles of the native tribes on the Great Plains. When bison were all but eliminated, the Great Plains lost a major source of nutrients in the form of fertilizer and meat. The living world can be a very fragile system!

    Living World - Key takeaways

    • The living world includes all of the components of the Earth that are alive.

    • The study of where living organisms live and how they are distributed is biogeography.

    • Ecosystems are the collective interactions between different living organisms with each other and their environment. Global ecosystems are called biomes.

    • There are five broad categories for types of living organisms: monera, fungi, animals, plants, and protists.

    • Animals, in particular, are very important in shaping the environment. Some animals can act as keystone species, meaning an entire ecosystem revolves around them.


    References

    1. Living Planet: A Portrait of the Earth. 1984.
    2. Fig. 1: Panthera leo stretching (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Panthera_leo_stretching_(Etosha,_2012).jpg) by Yathin S Krishnappa (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Yathin_sk), Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    3. Fig. 2: Biome map 08 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Biome_map_08.svg) by Terpsichores (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Terpsichores), Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Living World

    Why is the ecosystem important? 

    All life is interdependent. Humans participate in ecosystems too, from the food we eat to the air we breathe. 

    What are the main components of an ecosystem? 

    The two overarching components of an ecosystem are abiotic, or non-living, and biotic, or living. Abiotic components include things like sunlight, rocks, soil, and weather patterns. Biotic factors are living organisms, like plants, animals, and fungi. 

    What role do animals play in an ecosystem? 

    Animals act as consumers. Some ecosystems revolve around keystone species: one type of animal that affects everything else in the ecosystem, from plant distribution to habitat creation to sources of food. 

    What does living world mean in geography? 

    The living world includes those components of the Earth that are alive. The study of the distribution of living organisms is called biogeography.

    What are world ecosystems?

    World ecosystems are broad categories for major types of ecosystems. World ecosystems are called biomes.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or False? In tundra environments, the permafrost can melt during the summer months. 

    Name the two main challenges in managing cold environments.

    True or False? Increasing tourism is not a threat to cold environments.

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