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Alexander von Humboldt, theory of evolution, root word, Charles Darwin, natural selection

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Ecology, the study of the relationship of plants and animals to their physical and biological environment. The physical environment includes light and heat or solar radiation, moisture, wind, oxygen, carbon dioxide, nutrients in soil, water, and atmosphere. The biological environment includes organisms of the same kind as well as other plants and animals.

Because of the diverse approaches required to study organisms in their environment, ecology draws upon such fields as climatology, hydrology, oceanography, physics, chemistry, geology, and soil analysis. To study the relationships between organisms, ecology also involves such disparate sciences as animal behavior, taxonomy, physiology, and mathematics.

An increased public awareness of environmental problems has made ecology a common but often misused word. It is confused with environmental programs and environmental science. Although the field is a distinct scientific discipline, ecology does indeed contribute to the study and understanding of environmental problems.

The term ecology was introduced by the German biologist Ernst Heinrich Haeckel in 1866; it is derived from the Greek oikos (“household”), sharing the same root word as economics. Thus, the term implies the study of the economy of nature. Modern ecology, in part, began with Charles Darwin. In developing his theory of evolution, Darwin stressed the adaptation of organisms to their environment through natural selection. Also making important contributions were plant geographers, such as Alexander von Humboldt, who were deeply interested in the “how” and “why” of vegetational distribution around the world.


Smith, Robert Leo, M.S., Ph.D.

Professor of Wildlife Biology, West Virginia University. Author of ''Ecology and Field Biology'', ''Elements of Ecology'', and other books.

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