Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A bit about ecology, urban ecology, and why insects are awesome.

I talk about ecology quite a bit.  It's pretty much my entire life.  But I realized that most people are not super-nerds like me, and don't necessarily know the background.  So here's a bit from a paper I wrote earlier in the semester about ecology, urban ecology, and why insects are awesome.  

Ecology is the study of the distribution and abundance of organisms and their relationships and interactions with the biotic and abiotic factors that make up the environment.  Ecologists seek out all organisms, from the massive to the microscopic, looking to explain how that organism acts and reacts to the constantly changing world it lives in.  One of the major forces of change in the environment is the human population.  Humans can be considered the top consumer on the planet, with a population that continues to grow, consuming resources and destroying ecosystems along the way.  As the human population grows urbanization occurs, with the continuous development of commercial and industrial infrastructures in which individuals can live and work. 
            Urban ecologists study the interactions within these rapidly expanding systems.  There are several differences between rural and urban systems that make survival for non-human organisms challenging.  With limited patches of vegetation, often temporary and highly polluted and disturbed, constant noise pollution, differences in temperature and light, the urban environment is unique from any habitat, with different cities presenting different variables.  With urban sprawl a constant result of population growth and urban blight a seemingly inevitable response to changes within the socio-economic structure of a city, urbanization presents a uniquely challenging system for ecologists to study.  How to study an urban ecosystem is perhaps the biggest challenge.  Choosing the scale of study, model organisms, controls and variables for a study is critically important. No studies have been completed comparing ecology at different levels (for example, a city block, neighborhood, district, city, city and suburbs, county etc.) of urban systems.  Scale can be an important aspect of choosing a model organism.  For example, one might study bird diversity between neighborhoods, because their ability to travel might make studies on a smaller spatial scale redundant. 
Insects are excellent for smaller scale studies.  The extensive diversity of insects provides a wide range of variables.  Insects possess many features that make them excellent model organisms for studying the impacts of urbanization.  These features include:  great abundance and diversity, their short generation time, the ease and social acceptable methods of sampling and collection and the great variation of trophic levels. (McIntyre 2000.)

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