In ecology, an ecosystem is a naturally occurring assemblage of organisms (plant, animal and other living organisms—also referred to as a biotic community or biocoenosis) living together with their environment (or biotope), functioning as a unit of sorts.
The term ecosystem first appeared in a 1935 publication by the British ecologist Arthur Tansley (Tansley, 1935). However, the term had been coined already in 1930 by Tansley's colleague Roy Clapham , who was asked if he could think of a suitable word to denote the physical and biological components of an environment considered in relation to each other as a unit. Tansley expanded on the term in his later work, adding the ecotope concept to define the spatial context of ecosystems (Tansley, 1939). Modern usage of the term derives from the work of Raymond Lindeman in his classic study of a Minnesota lake (Lindeman, 1942).
An ecosystem is a dynamic and complex whole, interacting as an ecological unit. Some consider it is a basic unit in ecology, only a structured functional unit in equilibrium, characterized by energy and matter flows between the different elements that compose it. But others consider this vision or a self-standing unit with coherent and stable flows only to be a bit restrictive.
An ecosystem may be of very different size. It may be a whole forest, as well as a small pond. Different ecosystems are often separated by geographical barriers, like deserts, mountains or oceans, or are isolated otherwise, like lakes or rivers. As these borders are never rigid, ecosystems tend to blend into each other. As a result, the whole earth can be seen as a single ecosystem, or a lake can be divided into several ecosystems, depending on the used scale.
The organisms in an ecosystem are usually well balanced with each other and with their environment. Introduction of new environmental factors or new species can have disastrous results, eventually leading to the collapse of an ecosystem and the death of many of its native species. The abstract notion of ecological health attempts to measure the robustness and capacity for recovery of a natural ecosystem.
- Lindeman, R. L. 1942. The trophic-dynamic aspect of ecology. Ecology 23: 399-418.
- Tansley, A. G. 1935. The use and abuse of vegetational concepts and terms. Ecology 16: 284-307.
- Tansley, A.G. 1939. The British Islands and their Vegetation. Volume 1 of 2. University Press, Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom. 484 pg.