The architecture of inflorescence in grasses is subject to the physical pressures of wind and shaped by the forces of natural selection facilitating wind-pollination (or anemophily).
Turbulent forces in air and water have significant effects on the environment and ecosystem distribution, form and dynamics. On a planetary scale, ecosystems are affected by circulation patterns in the global trade winds. Wind power and the turbulent forces it creates can influence heat, nutrient, and biochemical profiles of ecosystems. For example, wind running over the surface of a lake creates turbulence, mixing the water column and influencing the environmental profile to create thermally layered zones, partially governing how fish, algae, and other parts of the aquatic ecology are structured. Wind speed and turbulence also exert influence on rates of evapotranspiration rates and energy budgets in plants and animals. Wind speed, temperature and moisture content can vary as winds travel across different landfeatures and elevations. The westerlies, for example, come into contact with the coastal and interior mountains of western North America to produce a rain shadow on the leeward side of the mountain. The air expands and moisture condenses as the winds move up in elevation which can cause precipitation; this is called orographic lift. This environmental process produces spatial divisions in biodiversity, as species adapted to wetter conditions are range-restricted to the coastal mountain valleys and unable to migrate across the xeric ecosystems of the Columbia Basin to intermix with sister lineages that are segregated to the interior mountain systems.
Forest fires modify the land by leaving behind an environmental mosaic that diversifies the landscape into different seral stages and habitats of varied quality (left). Some species are adapted to forest fires, such as pine trees that open their cones only after fire exposure (right).
Plants convert carbon dioxide into biomass and emit oxygen into the atmosphere. Approximately 350 million years ago (near the Devonian period) the photosynthetic process brought the concentration of atmospheric oxygen above 17%, which allowed combustion to occur. Fire releases CO2 and converts fuel into ash and tar. Fire is a significant ecological parameter that raises many issues pertaining to its control and suppression in management. While the issue of fire in relation to ecology and plants has been recognized for a long time, Charles Cooper brought attention to the issue of forest fires in relation to the ecology of forest fire suppression and management in the 1960s.
Fire creates environmental mosaics and a patchiness to ecosystem age and canopy structure. Native North Americans were among the first to influence fire regimes by controlling their spread near their homes or by lighting fires to stimulate the production of herbaceous foods and basketry materials. The altered state of soil nutrient supply and cleared canopy structure also opens new ecological niches for seedling establishment. Most ecosystem are adapted to natural fire cycles. Plants, for example, are equipped with a variety of adaptations to deal with forest fires. Some species (e.g., Pinus halepensis) cannot germinate until after their seeds have lived through a fire. This environmental trigger for seedlings is called serotiny. Some compounds from smoke also promote seed germination. Fire plays a major role in the persistence and resilience of ecosystems.
Ecologists study and measure nutrient budgets to understand how these materials are regulated, flow, and recycled through the environment. This research has led to an understanding that there is a global feedback between ecosystems and the physical parameters of this planet including minerals, soil, pH, ions, water and atmospheric gases. There are six major elements, including H (hydrogen), C (carbon), N (nitrogen), O (oxygen), S (sulfur), and P (phosphorus) that form the constitution of all biological macromolecules and feed into the Earth's geochemical processes. From the smallest scale of biology the combined effect of billions upon billions of ecological processes amplify and ultimately regulate the biogeochemical cycles of the Earth. Understanding the relations and cycles mediated between these elements and their ecological pathways has significant bearing toward understanding global biogeochemistry.
The ecology of global carbon budgets gives one example of the linkage between biodiversity and biogeochemistry. For starters, the Earth's oceans are estimated to hold 40,000 gigatonnes (Gt) carbon, vegetation and soil is estimated to hold 2070 Gt carbon, and fossil fuel emissions are estimated to emit an annual flux of 6.3 Gt carbon. At different times in the Earth's history there has been major restructuring in these global carbon budgets that was regulated to a large extent by the ecology of the land. For example, through the early-mid Eocene volcanic outgassing, the oxidation of methane stored in wetlands, and seafloor gases increased atmospheric CO2 (carbon dioxide) concentrations to levels as high as 3500 ppm. In the Oligocene, from 25 to 32 million years ago, there was another significant restructuring in the global carbon cycle as grasses evolved a special type of C4 photosynthesis and expanded their ranges. This new photosynthetic pathway evolved in response to the drop in atmospheric CO2 concentrations below 550 ppm. These kinds of ecosystem functions feed back significantly into global atmospheric models for carbon cycling. Loss in the abundance and distribution of biodiversity causes global carbon cycle feedbacks that are expected to increase rates of global warming in the next century. The effect of global warming melting large sections of permafrost creates a new mosaic of flooded areas where decomposition results in the emission of methane (CH4). Hence, there is a relationship between global warming, decomposition and respiration in soils and wetlands producing significant climate feedbacks and altered global biogeochemical cycles. There is concern over increases in atmospheric methane in the context of the global carbon cycle, because methane is also a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more effective at absorbing long-wave radiation than CO2 on a 100 year time scale.
Ecology has a complex origin due in large part to its interdisciplinary nature. Ancient philosophers of Greece, including Hippocrates and Aristotle were among the first to record their observations on natural history. However, philosophers in ancient Greece viewed life as a static element that did not require an understanding of adaptation, a modern cornerstone of ecological theory. Topics more familiar in the modern context, including food chains, population regulation, and productivity, did not develop until the 1700s through the published works of microscopist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723) and botanist Richard Bradley (1688?-1732). Biogeographer Alexander von Humbolt (1769–1859) was another early pioneer in ecological thinking and was among the first to recognize ecological gradients. Humbolt alluded to the modern ecological law of species to area relationships.
In the early 20th century, ecology was an analytical form of natural history. Following in the traditions of Aristotle, the descriptive nature of natural history examined the interaction of organisms with both their environment and their community. Natural historians, including James Hutton and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, contributed significant works that laid the foundations of the modern ecological sciences. The term "ecology" (German: Oekologie) is of a more recent origin and was first coined by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel in his book Generelle Morphologie der Organismen (1866). Haeckel was a zoologist, artist, writer, and later in life a professor of comparative anatomy.
By ecology we mean the body of knowledge concerning the economy of nature-the investigation of the total relations of the animal both to its inorganic and its organic environment; including, above all, its friendly and inimical relations with those animals and plants with which it comes directly or indirectly into contact-in a word, ecology is the study of all those complex interrelations referred to by Darwin as the conditions of the struggle of existence.
Haeckel's definition quoted in Esbjorn-Hargens:6
Ernst Haeckel (left) and Eugenius Warming (right), two founders of ecology
Opinions differ on who was the founder of modern ecological theory. Some mark Haeckel's definition as the beginning, others say it was Eugenius Warming with the writing of Oecology of Plants: An Introduction to the Study of Plant Communities (1895). Ecology may also be thought to have begun with Carl Linnaeus' research principals on the economy of nature that matured in the early 18th century. He founded an early branch of ecological study he called the economy of nature. The works of Linnaeus influenced Darwin in The Origin of Species where he adopted the usage of Linnaeus' phrase on the economy or polity of nature. Linnaeus was the first to frame the balance of nature as a testable hypothesis. Haeckel, who admired Darwin's work, defined ecology in reference to the economy of nature which has led some to question if ecology is synonymous with Linnaeus' concepts for the economy of nature.
The modern synthesis of ecology is a young science, which first attracted substantial formal attention at the end of the 19th century (around the same time as evolutionary studies) and become even more popular during the 1960s environmental movement, though many observations, interpretations and discoveries relating to ecology extend back to much earlier studies in natural history. For example, the concept on the balance or regulation of nature can be traced back to Herodotos (died c. 425 BC) who described an early account of mutualism along the Nile river where crocodiles open their mouths to beneficially allow sandpipers safe access to remove leeches. In the broader contributions to the historical development of the ecological sciences, Aristotle is considered one of the earliest naturalists who had an influential role in the philosophical development of ecological sciences. One of Aristotle's students, Theophrastus, made astute ecological observations about plants and posited a philosophical stance about the autonomous relations between plants and their environment that is more in line with modern ecological thought. Both Aristotle and Theophrastus made extensive observations on plant and animal migrations, biogeography, physiology, and their habits in what might be considered an analog of the modern ecological niche. Hippocrates, another Greek philosopher, is also credited with reference to ecological topics in its earliest developments.
The layout of the first ecological experiment, noted by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species, was studied in a grass garden at Woburn Abbey in 1817. The experiment studied the performance of different mixtures of species planted in different kinds of soils.
From Aristotle to Darwin the natural world was predominantly considered static and unchanged since its original creation. Prior to The Origin of Species there was little appreciation or understanding of the dynamic and reciprocal relations between organisms, their adaptations and their modifications to the environment. While Charles Darwin is most notable for his treatise on evolution, he is also one of the founders of soil ecology. In The Origin of Species Darwin also made note of the first ecological experiment that was published in 1816. In the science leading up to Darwin the notion of evolving species was gaining popular support. This scientific paradigm changed the way that researchers approached the ecological sciences.
Nowhere can one see more clearly illustrated what may be called the sensibility of such an organic complex,--expressed by the fact that whatever affects any species belonging to it, must speedily have its influence of some sort upon the whole assemblage. He will thus be made to see the impossibility of studying any form completely, out of relation to the other forms,--the necessity for taking a comprehensive survey of the whole as a condition to a satisfactory understanding of any part.