Each day the sunrises and we begin our daily grind, we inevitably will be in touch with the ecology that surround us. When we run the water to brush our teeth and take our showers, when we get in our vehicles and drive to work, when we come home and check our email on our computers, when we call our friends on our cell phones, and when we dispose of our trash throughout our day.
Ecology is the study of our earth – it’s relationships with organisms and their environment, and how those relationships affect the planet. There is a lot we can do as a species to help our environment sustain itself. And a great way to begin is to get educated.
Acutecology… Moving Forward
Population ecology, originally called autecology, is the study of how populations interact and change within a certain environment. Using this science, experts can offer advanced theories as to the growth or mortality rate of different species. The knowledge gained from population ecology is extremely useful to conservation efforts as it can give a general picture of the survival ability of populations.
A population can decline because it lacks resources or it can decline because it is prey to another species that is increasing in numbers. Populations are limited by their resources in their capacity to grow; the maximum population abundance (for a given species) an environment can sustain is called the carrying capacity.
As a population approaches its carrying capacity, overcrowding means that there are fewer resources for the individuals in the population and this leads to a reduction in the birth rate. A population with these features is said to be density dependent. Of course most populations are density dependent to some extent, but some grow (almost) exponentially and these are, in effect, density independent.
Where does mathematics come in?
Algorithms and patterns for population behaviour caused many debates between experts throughout the 20th century. While most agreed that basic formulas for determining the probable rate of population survival should exist, there was no great consensus on what those formulas were.
Although the science and mathematics that forms population ecology may be difficult for the layman to comprehend, the value of the results is easily measured. The field is of vital importance to the efforts of conservation groups, as it gives models and predictions for how well a population is surviving in its environment.
Ecological models that focus on a single species and the relevant carrying capacity are single species models. Alternatively, multi-species or community models focus on the interactions of specific species.
Effects of Newbies
Population ecology can show the effects of a newly introduced plant or animal on the local ecosystem; information that can be extremely important in areas where exotic species can lead to the devastation of local creatures. In re-population efforts, population ecology can also suggest how well an introduced species will do in a protected area such as a national park or wildlife preserve.
An important application of the theory of population ecology is in population viability analyses (PVAs). These are studies of populations under various management regimes and are important for conservation and resource management decisions.
To take an example from conservation management, the standard International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classification of endangered species relies heavily on estimates of current population numbers and predictions of declines in the near future. Examples of resource management include predictions of fish populations for managing fisheries.
What’s Happening Today
Today, population ecology presents a mass of graphs and tables to determine the principles of how a population will behave. While no method has proved absolutely perfect, the ability to produce roughly accurate predictions seems to increase as new theories are field-tested.
There is some concern, however, that the inexactness of the science can actually be to the detriment of some borderline endangered species. If a model incorrectly suggests that a population is flourishing or will greatly jump in numbers, local governments may issue hunting or gathering permits based on the model rather than on actual numbers.
It is perhaps best to bear in mind that nature is unpredictable, and the ecology of population, though improving, can never account for all possible variables in an environment.
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