Connectivity of green and blue infrastructures: living veins for biodiverse and healthy cities

What is ecology?

Ecology is the study of living things and their relations with the air, soil, rocks, water, and the rest of the environment.

Recently so many people have given me blank looks and asked what I mean when I say I am an ecologist that I have started saying "biologist" instead. Even "ecology" as a science like chemistry or physics, means nothing to many people. I think that the terms ecology and ecologist are more common in English than they are in French or Spanish, or maybe people just don't like to admit they don't understand me when we are both speaking our native languages. Anyway, I have realized that even though there is an ecological and environmental crisis (or crises) going on that seems to be more and more in the news, maybe the public doesn't realize that there is research activity, and a body of knowledge, supporting environmentalists' claims.

There are, in fact, people who spend all their time studying how mammals, birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians, marsupials, fish, weird ocean invertebrates, trees and flowers, mosses, lichens, ferns, algae, bacteria, and all the other tiny and strange living creatures, interact with the air, the soil, rocks, water, and anything else on Earth.

The point of this study is to ask things like: what species exist on Earth? Where are they found? What do they do? How many of them are there in any particular place? What kinds of "communities" of species tend to live together? Who eats whom? Who creates habitat for whom? Who lives inside whom? Who helps whom find resources? Who helps whom complete their life cycle? How do species move around? How do living things affect the rates or distributions in space of geological processes, the water cycle, or weather patterns?

Ecologists study patterns and processes. Many processes are described as cycles: life cycles from birth to reproduction, nutrient cycles from soil into bodies and back into soil, the carbon cycle (see this amazing visualization: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dwVsD9CiokY&fbclid=IwAR2U3fRnFqlybbq8XzRMqxKUdOf3pR4j_mCkSy03zG9xBLQs0khiNXm2MA4), or the water cycle from rain to water bodies and back into the atmosphere. Ecologists ask questions like, where do these processes happen most or least? How fast or slow are the cycles? What species or resources are needed at each step in the cycle for it to keep going, and how do those elements manage to meet up?

Other patterns are global, like that there are more species present in areas with more sun and rain (such as the tropics) than in areas with less sun and rain.

Ecologists also try to answer questions like: which is more important in determining the set of species that is found in a particular habitat or community, herbivory (eating plants) or predation (eating animals); competition between similar species, or facilitation between different species? And so on. These are questions about how big certain effects are, and how they interact with each other.

Ecological theory tries to explain why some processes and patterns are common and others are rare. Applied ecology takes all the observations, generalities, and mechanisms learned from ecology and comes up with management recommendations. Do you want to restore a forest? Ecology can tell you how. Do you want to have a productive rangeland for livestock? Ecology can give you insight. Do you want to reduce the heat island effect in a city? Ecology can explain free natural mechanisms using plants and their interactions with their environment.

"Ecologist" in French or Spanish (and maybe some other non-Romance languages, I don't know) is the equivalent to "environmentalist" in English. This causes some confusion. In any case, political environmentalists, environmental activists, and socially engaged conservationists militate for policies that reflect the science of ecology. For example, our current best understanding of ecosystems is that they are dynamic, not static, and that the presence of mobile species that help keep different cycles going helps create resilience to climate change and various disasters. Policies that allow dynamic environmental processes to occur (like river bank flooding), and that protect mobile species (and their ability to move) that are key to different natural cycles, would be ecology-based policies.

--Meredith Root-Bernstein, 28 November 2019.

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