In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ecosystem Ecology

  • Introduction
  • Modern Theory and Practice
  • Social and Human Dimensions
  • Ecosystem Services
  • Human Impacts and Global Change
  • Large Initiatives

Ecology Ecosystem Ecology
J.C. Moore
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0202


Ecosystem ecology is a branch of study and thinking within the ecological sciences that focuses on the ecosystem—a dynamic network of interactions of organisms and their environment—and the importance of these interactions to the organisms and earth system processes. The discipline represents one of two different epistemological approaches within ecology that emerged in the 20th century: a species-centric community-based approach, and a process-centric ecosystem-based approach. Both approaches study the ways in which species interact among themselves and their environment, share a common language, and share a common set of principles. The community-based approach focuses on how species’ distributions and abundances are shaped by their resource needs and tolerances to environmental conditions, and by their interactions with other species. The ecosystem-based approach represents a significant departure in that it considers both the resource needs and tolerances of species and their interactions with other species, but also factors in the contributions that species make to earth system processes (e.g., biogeochemical cycles, climate). The two perspectives are not as mutually exclusive as the phrasing of the approaches suggests, but rather offer different approaches to how we view the environment and communities and the factors that regulate them. In the 21st century, modern ecosystem science includes the influences that humans have as part of ecological communities and as drivers of change in ecological communities. This linkage within the ecosystem perspective of biology affecting the physical environment, and the recent developments that include the social and human dimensions, has positioned the approach as a critical one in understanding the relationship among global processes and the services that ecosystems provide to human well-being that is embodied in the emerging science of sustainability.

General Overview

Ecosystem ecology is a relatively young discipline. Golley 1993 and Coleman 2010 provide excellent reviews of the history of ecosystem science and firsthand accounts of the field’s development. Elements of the foundations of the science go back centuries, but they began to coalesce in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During the early part of the 20th century, there was a rapid shift from what was considered traditional ecology to what is now recognized as modern ecosystem thinking. The field was formalized in the late 20th century after World War II. Contemporary ecosystem thought has further evolved, and the field now embraces the importance of social and human dimensions. Golley 1993 focuses on the historical development of the field in general, but prior to the establishment and development of the social-ecological perspective. Coleman 2010 traces the development of the field by focusing on the large international and national initiatives that were initiated in response to the International Geophysical Year (1957–1958).

  • Coleman, D. C. 2010. Big ecology: The emergence of ecosystem science. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520264755.001.0001

    An easy-to-read accounting of the developments in ecosystem ecology during the latter half of the 20th century. The book is written from a participant’s perspective, providing insights into the advances in ecosystem science and the large-scale initiatives that were undertaken.

  • Golley, F. B. 1993. A history of the ecosystem concept in ecology. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    An interesting and thorough description of the history of the ecosystem concept as it developed during the 20th century.

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