Life and the physical environment  – The Applied Ecologist


This blog post on ‘Life and the physical environment’ is part of the BES ‘Key Concepts in Ecology’ series, designed to help ecologists in learning the key topics in ecology! Take a look at the full series for a list of key topics you might typically find in an ecology textbook, each providing a quick introduction to the topic, and a list of suggested papers for students to refer to.  

The physical environment and spatial variation in climate set the stage for ecology and evolution to occur. Broad-scale variation in climate biomes, which are large areas on the earth’s surface with distinct plant and animal groups adapted to their environment. Some biomes get more attention from conservation biologists than others (Silveira et al. 2022), and large biomes can be divided into subregions; for instance the Amazonian rainforest more than a dozen distinct subregions (Silva-Souza and Souza 2020).

Though biomes can be dramatically different (think streams and forests), some ecosystem processes, like the decomposition organic materials, are consistently driven by the same suite of factors (e.g., climate, nutrient availability), regardless of biome type (García-Paleos et al. 2016). Importantly, human activity and climate change can dramatically reshape biomes and the organisms that occupy them, as is happening in tropical reefs (Fulton et al. 2019), freshwater systems (Hasegawa et al. 2021, Brosse et al. 2022, Warkentin et al. 2022) . Interestingly, biomes also regulate climate, and altering biomes by, for example, logging, can lead to increases in local temperatures (Blümroder et al. 2021).  

Climate can change temporally and even over vary small spatial scales, say on the order of a square meter or two (Kearney et al. 2014). Documenting when over the course of the year plants are expected to green up (and how that is changing) can be studied using freely available tools from the USA National Phenology network, as in Gerst et al. 2021). It’s now also possible to forecast future climate change, such as the impact of droughts on ecosystem functions (Bard et al. 2022), which will be increasingly important as managers devise mitigation plans.  

Introduction written by Nate Sanders (Executive Editor, Journal of Animal Ecology). Reading list curated by the BES journal Editors. 

References and suggested reading 

Climate and biomes  

Terrestrial biomes  

Aquatic biomes  

Small-scale variation in climate  

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