Friday, February 18, 2011

Definition Day: Ecosystem

Environmental Design- Jane Gardner

Eco, eco, eco...we are bombarded with 'eco'. Many products are now labeled 'eco-friendly' or 'eco-conscious'. There are eco-cities, eco-towns, and eco-tourism. In Canada there is even something called 'EcoLogo' which states that something is an 'Environmental Choice' (I honestly have no idea what EcoLogo's standards are). If you want to find environmental jobs in Canada you can browse ECO Canada.

But 'eco' is just a prefix. It's origin is the Greek word 'oikos', meaning house [1]. Eco, as we use it today, represents 'environment', 'nature', 'natural habitats' [2], so it is very valuable to understand the word ecosystem in our now eco-centric society.

ec·o·sys·tem, noun: A system formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their environment; A complex set of relationships among living things and their habitat; an ecological community together with its environment, functioning as a unit[3],[4], [5].

So, if we break down ecosystem (eco + system) we have living things (animals, plants, bacteria) + non-living things (air, water, rocks, minerals, etc) interacting with each other. When I say interactions, I mean things like eating food and drinking water; finding and/or making shelter (a house), and competing with others for food, mates, and shelter.

Use your imagination to think of some interactions. I'm thinking of the bacteria in my gut digesting my breakfast, a bird eating insects on a tree, two squirrels fighting over nuts, rain allowing plants to grow and then fire burning the plants down (repeat cycle). The possible number and type interactions seem endless. Which is why understanding the extremely delicate, super-fine balance of ecosystems is so challenging. Let's all thank an ecologist (a scientist that studies ecosystems) for taking on such tough research!

Ecologists often use math to help them study ecosystems.

We can think of an ecosystem as an equation: The sum of all the interactions between (living things + living things) + (non-living things + non-living things) + (living things + non-living things) = ecosystem.

Now the math ecologists use is much more complicated than the simple equation I showed above. Ecologists often use computer programs to make models that try to simulate the interactions of living and non-living things. There are some free resources to help us study ecology:

The Open Directory Project and Google Directory have some pretty intense ecology software, probably useful for upper level university students and grad students. While LotsofLessons has teacher resources, activities, and games for K-12 ecology.

Thank you to Jane Gardner for the use of her original graphic design 'Environmental Design'. You can purchase this print as well as other graphic designs from Jane's online shop.

[1] Ware, R. K. 2007. The Meaning of "eco-". The Montrose Group. Accessed on February 18, 2011 from:

[2] Eco-. 2011. Accessed on February 18, 2011 from:

[3] Ecosystem. 2011. Accessed on February 18, 2011 from:

[4] Houghton Forestry Sciences Laboratory. What is an ecosystem? Accessed on February 18, 2011 from:

[5] 2011. Ecosystem. Accessed on February 18, 2011 from:


  1. I really like your blog! I'm also often confused on how to make "green" choices.
    -Katie S.

  2. Of course the word 'eco' caught my eye! ;) All that green means is simple. Take out all those chemicals, and unknown ingredients, and you can get back to the basics. Thanks for an informative read Green Goddess!

  3. Hello Teala,

    I wanted to let you know that I've given you an award (of sorts!). Take a peek at my latest blog post for details:

    Congrats! ;D

    Taylor Lynn <3