An Introduction to the Environment

 Contents

  1. Understanding the Concept
  2. Interactions between Organisms & their Environments
  3. Biotic and Abiotic Components of the Environment
  4. Food Interactions with Biotic and Abiotic Components
  5. Non-food Interactions with Biotic and Abiotic Components
  6. Outcomes of Organism-Environment Interactions
  7. The Science of Ecology

Understanding the Concept

Let's begin by defining what we mean by the word "environment." What does the term "Environment" refer to, and why is it important?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this term refers to "the whole range of environmental conditions in which an organism thrives." This means that an organism's 'environment' includes all of the physical components that surround it: air, water, light, and so on. Other organisms, from bacteria to plants and animals, must also be taken into account. However, what if the organism is a human being? A new definition of the term "Environment" is also required. Environmental elements comprise more than simply physical and biological factors that surround a human 'organism'; they also include the social and cultural contexts in which a human lives. As a result, the term 'Environment' is widely understood in our day. It is time to go back to the dictionary definition of environmental. The definition has an intriguing feature. When the definition of "environment" is defined as "the conditions under which an organism survives," the term cannot be universally applied to all living things. In order for an organism to live and thrive, it necessitates a specific set of environmental factors. As a result, each organism's surroundings are unique. Therefore, a sparrow in its eaves nest, and rat in its burrow, are two separate species living in the same building. There are several differences between birds that perch on branches of trees and those that nest in the branches themselves, such as koels and barbets.

In human terms, a person living in Mumbai would have a slightly different atmosphere than a person living in Thane. However, the disparity between a person in Pune and a person in Delhi would be considerably more pronounced. In contrast, even if you and I are seated in the same room on the same sofa, our environments are distinct since my environment includes you, while yours includes me! Because of this, your surroundings will be filled with noise and movement, whereas mine will be peaceful and quiet!

Interactions between Organisms & their Environments

It doesn't matter how great or tiny the alteration may be, an organism's environment is continually evolving. The transition might be climatic at times. Light may fall in a different direction from time to time. The sun may be obstructed by a cloud that floats by. There is a chance that a breeze will begin to blow or that it will cease to do so. It could also be hit by a severe thunderstorm. Other times, another creature is to blame for the shift. In some cases, goats will nibble off a blade of grass from a patch of grass. A crow's nest in the branch above may shadow a tree branch leaf. It's possible that you'll be stung by a mosquito. For a human, the shift could even be cultural: a long-time neighbour who was culturally extremely similar to you might move out, and his house might be taken by someone who is very different from you. In one way or another, organisms are always reacting to such shifts. Most of the time, the organism's response takes the form of some sort of action intended to improve its well-being or even ensure its survival. A lizard may hide under a rock during the hottest part of the day to avoid the sun's rays. The crow's nest-shaded leaf may adjust its position to get more direct sunlight. You're most likely to whack at that bug. You should definitely keep your distance from your new neighbour until you are convinced the two of you will get along. As we can see, creatures interact with their environments in a variety of ways.

Biotic and Abiotic Components of the Environment

An organism's environment is generally separated into "biotic" and "abiotic" components, each of which refers to elements that are either living or not.
  • As one may readily understand, abiotic components include the many physicochemical elements around the organism. Abiotic elements of an organism's environment include things like air, water, light, temperature, humidity, salinity, pH (relative acidity or alkalinity), rainfall, snowfall, wind speed, and wave movement.
  • The other creatures that make up an organism's surroundings are referred to as biotic components. From the perspective of the creature, these entities include members of its own species as well as members of nearby species of other species.
The definitions of biotic and abiotic components leadus to a few obvious questions:
  • Does the term "biotic" refer to simply life? How about decomposing organisms? They ought to be regarded as biotic, right?
  • Are pieces of skin, hair, claws, or other bodily parts that have been cut off from an organism biotic or abiotic?
Let's attempt to comprehend the definitions more thoroughly. Although such material is technically lifeless, it differs noticeably from any abiotic component in terms of structure and content. Materials produced by creatures inside of their bodies are made up of the same components that make up the abiotic world, and they are also derived from it. The organism transforms them into complex materials, however, that are exclusive to the biotic world once they are obtained from the abiotic world.

When an organism dies, a piece of its live body separates from it, or waste produced by a living body is ejected, all the resulting dead elements retain their distinctive complexity for a while before being broken down into simple units. Natural processes—often referred to as "rotting" or "decay"—cause the complex, lifeless materials produced by the biotic world to break down into the simple, abiotic-world-typical units. Therefore, materials produced by organisms are biotic in nature up until the point at which they have entirely broken down to the level typical of the abiotic universe.

Food Interactions with Biotic and Abiotic Components

An organism basically depends on its surroundings for the materials and energy it needs to survive. The materials are necessary to create or preserve the bodily structure of the organism. Energy is needed to power all of its life-sustaining functions. An organism can obtain these components and energy in either a direct or indirect way.

Some creatures derive all of their energy from the abiotic elements of their surroundings.

All of these species are referred to as "autotrophs," which is Latin for "feeding oneself." Chemotrophs, or "feeding on chemicals," are creatures that get their energy from chemicals in their surroundings. Chemotrophs are unlikely to be among those that we are familiar with because they are found on ocean floors and in places without sunshine. However, the majority of other autotrophs—also known as phototrophs, which literally means "feeding on light"—obtain their energy from sunshine. Plants are the phototrophs that we are most accustomed to.

Phototrophs are able to absorb solar energy, incorporate it into material, and then store that material within their bodies. This substance that has energy stored in it is frequently referred to as "food." In comparison to their own demands, phototrophs produce food in quite big quantities. For example, plants utilise a portion of their stored food each day to meet their daily energy needs. Technically, all of the remaining food in storage is a surplus. From the perspective of the phototroph, this surplus acts as insurance against a potential future food shortfall. However, this surplus also serves as a ready supply of food that non-autotrophs, or species without the ability to produce their own food, can raid. Autotrophs are also referred to as "producers" since they provide the nourishment that non-autotrophs need to survive. Heterotrophs, which means "feeding on others," are organisms that are not autotrophs, or able to produce their own food. They access the extra food that autotrophs have stored and use it to generate energy in one manner or another. The animals we are most familiar with as heterotrophs include worms, insects, shellfish, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Some heterotrophs directly consume whole autotrophs or their components in order to gain energy. These heterotrophs are sometimes referred to as "herbivores," which is a term for "plant-eaters." Herbivores use a portion of the energy they consume from autotrophs to meet their own daily energy needs. The remainder is kept in reserve by their bodies. The herbivore can protect itself against a future food deficit with this accumulated surplus. It also serves as a ready supply of food that may be consumed by any other heterotroph that wants to eat it! We are all familiar with grasshoppers, fruit-bats, hares, and ants that devour leaves. Heterotrophs that get their energy from consuming herbivores are sometimes referred to as "carnivores," which is Latin for "flesh eaters." Like us, they just expend the energy required for survival while storing the excess. Higher echelons of carnivores that prey on other carnivores may utilise the stored surplus. The term "apex carnivore" or "apex predator" refers to the highest degree of carnivore, which is not typically food (or prey) for any other carnivore. Eagles and tigers are two typical examples of such apex carnivores or predators. We are also familiar with frogs, lizards, swallows, and foxes as carnivores. Some heterotrophs also feed in a different, very distinct manner. They access the energy that has been locked up in the wastes that other species excrete, the remnants of once-living material that have been removed from the bodies of organisms, or the bodies of deceased organisms to meet their energy needs. These substances are technically referred to as "detritus," and the term "detritivores," which means "detritus eaters," is frequently used to describe these types of animals.

They are also known as "saprotrophs," which is Greek for "feeding on dead material." Some typical examples of saprotrophs include bacteria and fungus. However, you can question, "Aren't the mushrooms we consume also fungi? Does that imply that humans eat creatures that consume trash? Yes, saprotrophs can be eaten by humans and a variety of other heterotrophs. In actuality, we consume a wide range of them, including prawns, crabs, clams, etc. Saprotrophs include insects like cockroaches, millipedes, and earthworms. Because all heterotrophs consume the food produced by producers, either directly or indirectly, they are often referred to as "consumers" collectively.

Non-food Interactions with Biotic and Abiotic Components

Nutritional factors are just one aspect of how an organism interacts with the abiotic or biotic elements of its environment. In order to move around (such as when swimming or swinging from branches), transfer reproductive materials (such as when pollinating), transport propagative materials (such as when dispersing seeds), and other functions, organisms also interact with various abiotic and biotic elements of their environments.

When there is an imbalance between certain abiotic elements, an organism's ability to grow, reproduce, or survive is constrained. Most of us are aware of how too much salt or insufficient nitrogen can inhibit the growth of most plants. Abiotic elements may vary in importance or even criticality throughout an organism's existence, which is another aspect. For instance, an organism's abiotic requirements during its caterpillar phase are likely to differ from those during its butterfly adult phase. Another illustration is when an organism's seed germination stage is likely to be impacted by abiotic conditions that have little bearing on the organism's mature plant stage.

The success of an organism's development or reproduction can also be hampered or facilitated by biotic variables. "Intraspecific relationships" are interactions between members of the same species as an organism. These frequently involve acts like mating and raising one's children. Interspecific relationships are interactions between members of one species and those of another. These frequently involve behaviours like parasitism and predation (such as a lizard devouring a fly) (as in a flea living on a rat).

The biotic and abiotic elements of an organism's environment are interrelated in a number of ways, despite the fact that they are frequently researched or dealt with separately. Take a lily that is growing on the forest floor as an illustration. The amount of sunlight that reaches this tiny plant depends on a variety of biotic and abiotic factors, including the angle at which it is falling, the amount of cloud cover blocking it, the shading effect of the surrounding vegetation, the amount of leaf surface that is lost due to caterpillar consumption, the portion of the leaf surface that is covered by insect eggs, cocoons, or galls, and more. We can understand the variety and complexity of the numerous relationships that can exist between an organism and its biotic and abiotic settings by paying attention to the natural world around us.

Outcomes of Organism-Environment Interactions

At least three common but fascinating processes will be found by examining the interactions between organisms and their environments across time. What do these three procedures entail? Let's take a brief, cursory glance at each one to get a sense of it.

An organism is unavoidably influenced by its surroundings as the first process. We can see that identical organisms may exhibit various flowering and fruiting cycles, behaviours, or even different physical shapes when exposed to obviously different surroundings. For instance, if a plant is moved from Delhi to Mumbai, it can begin to bloom twice a year instead of only one. On the forest floor, you might find a plant species that is known to grow upright on an open clifftop. A kind of animal that hibernates in the interior of a continent during the winter may be active along the shore.

It has been discovered that human organisms have also developed socially and culturally distinctive societies in a variety of situations. People who have been around India's coastline will have noticed that the nation's coastal cultures share a lot of similarities. The Gangetic Plains and the Deccan Plateau each have distinct cultures. In this context, the traditional practise of polyandry observed in a few isolated Himalayan societies would be a particularly fascinating example. There, one wife is jointly chosen by all the brothers of a generation, and all of her children inherit the family farm. This unusual method highlights the impact of a challenging climate where fragmenting already modest land holdings would make agriculture unprofitable. This is an intriguing illustration of how an organism—in this case, a human—is affected by and formed by its surroundings.

It goes without saying that the organism also influences its environment as the second process emerging from organism-environment interactions. This process probably isn't as visible as it is when human beings interact with their settings, where we observe that entire landscapes and seascapes are changed by humans in an effort to make their habitats physically more comfortable or even financially more successful! Examples of the levels and extents to which human organisms can impact their environments include the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment and human-caused climate change. In contrast, organisms can also have a tiny impact on their surroundings. Let's attempt to comprehend how.

Think of a tiny herb that is growing on or close to a rock. The herb's roots enter rock fissures and somewhat widen them as they grow. Small bits of plant matter then gather in the fissures and begin to decay. The decaying biomass produces corrosive acids that seep deep into the rock strata. The weaker rock eventually splits or crumbles. The aggregate outcome of this process is enormous if we can envisage the scale at which such rock-splitting events occur, despite the fact that each of them occurs at a level that is practically undetectable. The combined impact of plants from all over the world is causing gigantic rocks to slowly and steadily crumble into tonnes of fine soil every year.

The third process brought on by interactions between organisms and their environments is, arguably, the most fascinating. This is the process through which an organism alters its surroundings to the point that those surroundings are no longer suited for the organism's survival. Let's investigate how this might occur.

Consider a patch of soil that lacks enough nitrogen to support the growth of most plants, leaving it nearly bare. In that nitrogen-poor soil, a legume, like a wild Moong plant, can flourish because it has the benefit of having bacteria that fix nitrogen in its roots. The Moong plant can live because the root-bacteria supply nitrogen to the soil. As this moong plant develops, the root bacteria continue to add nitrogen to the soil, which is then further enhanced by the breakdown of the moong's shed plant matter. When the soil at that location reaches a certain point, it can support even plant species without any nitrogen-fixing infrastructure. In other words, the Moong and its root bacteria would have changed its environment from one that was low in nitrogen to one that was high in nitrogen. What follows is what?

Once other plant species establish themselves in that area of soil, they may do even better there than the Moong, which is no longer at a disadvantage. The Moong not only loses its previous monopoly on the nutrients in the soil patch, but it is also likely to be completely displaced by new plant species that are better adapted to the altered environment. Therefore, the wild Moong plant and the bacteria in its roots altered the environment in a way that rendered it unfit for themselves. When a group of aquatic plants in a pond thrive to the point that dead plant matter builds up and transforms the pond into a marsh, a similar process occurs. The pond's flora gradually gives way to marsh vegetation because it cannot contain enough water to support it. It would be an amazing experience to be able to observe entire communities of species being replaced by others as a pond develops into a marsh or a marsh turns into a forest!

The Science of Ecology

Ecology is a distinct branch of science that studies how organisms interact with their environments in systematic fashion. Ecology is the scientific study of the interactions between organisms and all other living and non-living elements of their environment, according to official definitions. People who study ecology, or ecologists, are constantly attempting to comprehend how a creature fits into its surroundings. As we have seen, each organism has requirements that interact with those of other organisms sharing the same space, making it similar to putting together a sizable jigsaw puzzle.

Consider an animal that feeds on plants but is also hunted by other animals to get a sense of the scope of an ecological study. This species must continuously contend with other creatures of a like kind for food. It is always on guard against attacks from its predators. It has a good chance of contracting a sickness at some point in its lifespan. The quality of the available shelter or nesting materials, the season, the weather, and a number of other elements will all have an impact on the length of its life. This animal will also need to mate while it is alive and give birth to fertile offspring before it passes away in order to fully fulfil the biological purpose of its life. The relationships an animal has with its environment, including the other organisms there, will determine its capacity to obtain food, escape predators, survive disease, endure climatic events, and so forth. A fundamental ecological study would set out to map this intricate web of connections between the interactions of that creature and then interpret them in order to determine the precise place of that organism in its environment.

The ecological method is known as "Autecology" if such relationships are explored from the perspective of a single species. The ecological method is known as "Synecology" when all (or a large number of) the species inhabiting an area are investigated as a community. Where can one pursue an ecological degree? Studying the organism is the only way to learn how it endures, reproduces, and interacts with its surroundings. Of course, the most effective approach to achieve this is to watch the organism in its natural habitat. Therefore, conducting field studies would be the ideal methodology in ecology.

However, it becomes vital to place the organism in a controlled environment and track the changes as they happen in order to learn how an organism might react to a change in environment. It could be necessary to transport the organism into a lab for this, but it's crucial to keep in mind that when an organism is taken out of its normal environment, it's likely to behave rather differently. Organizing field-based ecological experiments would be a compromise solution.

Nearly 150 years ago, ecology was formally established as a science. However, despite the long history of ecological research and the discovery of several ecological patterns, it is widely known that there is still a great deal to learn and comprehend. Additionally, the ecological knowledge we have amassed to date is rather uneven, in that we know a great deal about a few specific regions of the earth but relatively little about the majority of others. Finally, because most ecological relationships are relatively delicate, it usually takes a lot of time and sensitivity to recognise ecological realities and accurately interpret them. Ecology may be a fascinating subject to study, though, provided we keep all of these factors in mind and make sure to approach the topic by asking specific and exact questions.

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