Over the course of its history as a discipline, ecology has taken on many different names – including bioecology, bionomics, and environmental biology – all of which are correct. While it can often be confusing to keep track of the many different disciplines relating to the study of living organisms, due to the diversity of specializations and branches within the biological sciences, understanding the definition of ecology can actually be quite simple.

Ecology is involved in not just in delineating the structures and functions of living things, but also their environments. This means that ecologists can be found in everything from sustainable agriculture, restoration of natural habitats, dealing with microbial investigations – basically anything dealing with the natural world.

Plant life is important to harvesting
Observational sciences have been around since the birth of civilization

What is Ecology?

Chances are, if you’re studying ecology, whether at the undergraduate or masters level, you may already have your own definition of what exactly ecology is and what the kind of social and political implications the discipline holds. However, it is important to always take a look at the history of interaction of this particular discipline with the various branches within biological studies.

The evolution of the discipline of ecology starts with the growing interest in both biodiversity and the concept of understanding the organism in its habitat or ecosystem. Understanding everything from terrestrial and biotic organisms to the sustainability of one natural resource or more have become central topics and themes within the field of ecology.

While the history of the discipline can be traced back to ancient times, the concept of modelling an ecological system or environmental impact is a relatively new idea and has become extremely important in both understanding and ameliorating environmental conditions.

The term ecology actually comes from the Greek word “oikos,” which translates to home or household. This signifies a significant change in terms of the implications of ecology. Historically, humans have depended on ecology in order to survive. The relationship between organisms and their environment – living and nonliving – formed the basis of understanding harvests, seasonal cycles, and basic medicinal practices.

Giving this practice a word related to home, centuries later in the 19th century, meant a realization that ecology was closely tied to human behaviour and life. This means that ecology can penetrate even economies, relating to things such as energy budgets and wildlife conservation efforts. This is also why ecology as a discipline is closely related to governments, as the measurement and maintenance of parks, lakes, and urban communities are often a direct responsibility of the municipalities and states they’re in. If you’re interested in learning more about these types of biological sciences, or simply want to study for ecology specifically, keep reading.

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Environmental Studies

As mentioned previously, ecology, like many areas of study that make up biology, can take on many forms due to its interdisciplinary nature. What this means is that there are many different areas of study that you might be focusing on at one particular moment, and while there are many approaches to studying ecology, it can be extremely helpful to start by defining the different branches within ecology. From genetics and cellular development to evolutionary aspects of science, ecology penetrates many different fields – here, we give some examples and definitions to help you out.

Ecology and Evolution

One of the most important moments in the history of ecology was the development of evolutionary theory. The start of this theory can be pinpointed to the work of Charles Darwin in the 19th century, postulating that organism are born by a process called evolution. This definition integrated within it the concept of natural selection, which is the process by which organisms with more beneficial characteristics survive more than those without, and therefore transfer these characteristics to their offspring.

This theory was of course expounded upon by many other professionals in fields like botany, which deal heavily with understanding the relation of plants and their environments, and microbiology – however, it was ecology that saw the greatest improvement. The study of the evolution of species and environments has now been improved with advancements in technology.

Population Ecology

This field of study involves understanding the processes and events that effect the population flows of animal and plant populations. While this may seem distanced from everyday life and study, you actually experience and learn about this all the time. The city where you life in, for example, has many connections to the populations of the animals that inhabit it now or once inhabited it.

This isn’t limited to animals – plants also form an important part of population ecology. For example, geographers often take plant species into account when identifying specific territories. Factors such as pollution, city development, genetic mutations and other mico-organismal processes, and human activity can all impact this field.

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Medicinal studies are incomplete without microbes
Understanding microorganisms and their role in ecology is vital to medicine

Community Ecology

This branch of ecology often goes hand in hand with population ecology. This is due to its area of focus, which has to do with studying the function and organization of species in particular geographical areas and habitats. A biological community is defined as arising from the interaction of species with one another.

Within this field, you will often encounter tools such as trophic pyramids and graphical representations of energy flows. Some common examples that you are likely to encounter in your study of ecology include depictions of photosynthesis and food webs. This field of study is extremely important to work in conservation.

Population Dynamics

The dynamics of population are tied, of course, with population ecology. However, this specific term deals with the actual number of individuals within a population, and how that number changes over time. While you’re more likely to encounter this subject in higher levels of biology and ecology, it is a dynamic field and combines the power of biological and mathematical principles.

This field is particularly dependent on graphical representations of populations. For example, you are likely to be familiar with different theories and graphs about population growth in humans – the most obvious example being census information given by national and international bodies.

Environmental Science

While it is often seen as perfectly acceptable to use ecology and environmental science as interchangeable in relation to understanding fields of study, it is important to note that environmental science can also be regarded as a field of its own and often collaborates with fields pertaining to the study of animals or that of plants.

This particular branch of ecology forms an interdisciplinary network of study, including ecology, chemistry, physics, geology, and engineering. It should not be confused with environmental studies, with deals exclusively with the relationship humans have to the environment.

Environmental science, however, holds more quantitative aspects and is interesting if you enjoy learning about ecology but also have interests in the fields of economics and mathematics.

Conservation Biology

Thanks to many of the world’s global leaders, this particular discipline has seen a rise in popularity within the media. The main goal of conservation biology is to use a multidisciplinary approach to addressing the rise and fall of biological diversity.

It is often seen as a “mission-oriented crisis discipline,” meaning that these scientists will often use theoretical information and try to apply it to solving issues like over-harvesting and habitat loss and fragmentation. Because this discipline requires a vast knowledge about ecosystems and habitats, as well as the skills to quantify them, it is important to understand both ecology and analytic mathematics or economics.

Professional ecologists
Ecology has opened up a world of different professions

Best Places to Study Ecology

The best schools, in terms of studying ecology, will obviously depend on which specialization you’d like to get involved with – either from the list above or another one that you have studied. Some of the best schools for ecology around the globe for environment-related ecology are:

  • University of California Berkeley, United States
  • Wageningen University and Research Center, Netherlands
  • Stanford University, United States
  • Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, Switzerland
  • University of Oxford, United Kingdom

If you’re looking to study in the UK, some universities worth checking out for biological sciences include:

  • University of St. Andrews, Scotland
  • University of Cambridge, England
  • Ulster University, Northern Ireland
  • University of Cambridge, England

Careers in Environmental Studies

Fortunately, jobs in ecology are both diverse and numerous because of its interaction with many other disciplines. If you’re interested in becoming a scientist in ecological fields, and are looking for dynamic and integrative solutions to today's most pressing concerns, this might be the right field for you.

While being a biologist often means working in fields closely related to laboratory work, being an ecologist often means taking part in research and opportunities outdoors, both on the molecular level and on a bigger, organismal scale.

If you’re interested in working in this field, you’re average salary will depend on the specialization you would like to take. For example, whereas environmental scientists earn about £60,000 annually, hydrologists earned about £75,000 per year. Here are some career options to look into if you are interested in working in ecology:

  • Environmental engineer
  • Conservation
  • Fisheries
  • Biogeography
  • Ecosystem services
  • Forestry
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