Ecology And Environment
Ecosystems are connected webs of life.

Ecosystems and their interconnections

Ecosystems are connected webs of life.
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"Ecosystems and their interconnections"
Caption: Ecosystems are connected webs of life.
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This article addresses the  concept of connection that is a major tool for studying complex ecosystems. Other conceptual tools are available, including scale, change over space, change over time, balance and diversity.

The living and non-living elements of ecosystems have varying scales or sizes. The web of connections between physical structures, air, water, rocks, dead plant material and other non-living components and living things is just that: There are layers of webs that somehow interconnect.

Cause and effect

Connection is one of the most complicated and complex concepts in nature. The study of connections can include relationships, causes and effects that are not detectable. Causes and effects can be newly discovered, or they can be very old. They can be the least understandable of all ecological concepts.

The chemical soup

Humans exist within a chemical soup that they introduce to every ecosystem that they encounter. The chemistry can work through the atmosphere,  aquatic structures or through physical contact. Humans introduce chemicals that have never existed before, as with the great aerosol spray crisis and fossil fuel burning. Humans introduce chemicals through their waste, as they carry and use substances; and through respiration and by venting gases from the objects that they wear and carry.

Connections between ecosystems

Examples of how ecosystems connect include the most obvious: The desert connects to the forest. Land connects to water in riparian ecosystems.


There are the small ecosystems that connect, as with the mouth and stomach of a mammal where microscopic bacteria colonies help or hinder digestion. A tiny rain puddle becomes an ecosystem from the atmosphere that can bloom with life within a few days. Mosquitoes breed and  birds use puddles for bathing and drinking. They leave waste that is full of chemicals, microscopic life and plant seeds.  

Complexity and chaos

There are the conceptual frameworks for understanding the complexity of connection, including chaos theory. "The butterfly effect," fractals, new statistical tools are examples. There are also new ways of observing, handling and managing what is observed. Complex data modeling is important to the environmental scientist.

Connections between living and non living elements

From the introduction of a single invasive species to the introduction of a single plastic bottle cap to the ecosystem, the resulting connections between living and non-living elements can cause great changes on a small scale. The connections can cause a great number of small changes that resonate throughout a large system.

Macro and micro concepts

Humans now have the capacity to detect and observe macro ecological and atmospheric phenomena, such as atmospheric rivers and the details of entire continents. Humans have the ability to map the ocean floor and to identify holes in the ozone layer. This will keep environmental scientists busy for a long time.

There is also the capacity to analyze micro-phenomena, such as sub-molecular interactions, minute genetic activity and cellular activity. The ability to map the entire genome of a species or to manipulate the massive amounts of data involved leads to even more understanding of connectivity.

As a result, advanced scientific equipment can observe chemical changes to the environment that affect living things at the cellular, reproductive or metabolic levels. These are new and novel layers of complexity.

Data management

There is the capacity to manage massive amounts of data in order to do "what if" types of analysis, where one or thousands of variables can change. Computers can manipulate huge and complex calculations to reveal millions of possible outcomes for complex systems.

Connections between migration and environments

It is said that migrating animals always take something with them when they go. They leave something behind wherever they go. Thus, human beings are the most capable of introducing connections between ecosystems. Whole ecosystems are transferred great distances in the holds of ships and planes. Smaller systems ride in the fingernails, hair, clothing and shoe treads of humans who can circle the planet within a couple of days.


With so many new discoveries that come from so many new tools, there is plenty of work to do. Will humans ever unravel the complex and layered chaos of ecology? No one knows.

More about this author: Elizabeth M Young

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