Whether you realize it or not, you interact with an ecosystem every day. We all live in ecosystems and have an impact on how they work and the other species that are able to live in our shared environment.
Simple decisions like how we buy groceries and get to work everyday can change the health of our ecosystems and the ecosystems we depend on. The health of ecosystems impacts our daily lives, from how our food is produced to where we go on vacation.
So what is an ecosystem? What kind of ecosystem do you live in, and why are ecosystems important? Read on to see our ultimate ecosystem guide, include what an ecosystem is, why they’re important, and twelve different kinds of ecosystems found in the world.
An ecosystem describes a community of plants and animals living in the same area. Ecosystems also include climatic conditions, elevation, the presence or absence of water, and other non-living parts of the environment. While each ecosystem is unique, ecosystems have been categorized to describe and compare environments all over the world.
Ecosystems are classified by their abiotic components and biotic components.
- Abiotic Components
Abiotic components are all of the non-living pieces of the ecosystem that shape the environment. This includes components such as soil, moisture, carbon dioxide, organic compounds, and elevation.
Climatic conditions are considered abiotic components when classifying ecosystems. The climate of an ecosystem includes factors like solar radiation, elevation, weather patterns, and the amount of precipitation the ecosystem receives. These abiotic components influence what biotic components are able to survive and thrive within an ecosystem.
- Biotic Components
Biotic components include all living organisms within the ecosystem. Biotic components are split into two categories: flora, or plants, and fauna, or animals. The biotic components of an ecosystem can range from several hundred or even thousands of species to just a few species depending on the abiotic components.
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All the ecosystems in the world fall into two categories. Ecosystems found on land are considered terrestrial ecosystems and all the ecosystems found in water are considered aquatic ecosystems. Let’s take a look at twelve different kinds of ecosystems, broken down into terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.
1. Tropical Rainforest Ecosystem
The tropical rainforest ecosystem is characterized by high temperatures and humidity throughout the year, with up to 400 inches(10.16 m) of rainfall annually. The high temperatures and humidity are caused by their location in the tropics, where the sun’s rays are most intense. These rich abiotic factors allow a great diversity of biotic factors. In fact, tropical rainforests are one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, with roughly half of the world’s species found in tropical rainforests.
The tropical rainforest ecosystem can be found in Central and South America, western and central Africa, western India, Southeast Asia, New Guinea, and Australia. The Amazon rainforest in South America is the largest tropical rainforest in the world, with estimates of 2.5 million different insects, 40,000 plant species, 1,300 bird species, 3,000 fish species, and 427 mammal species.
2. Temperate Forest Ecosystem
The temperate forest ecosystem is characterized by high levels of precipitation as both rain and snow and temperatures change with the seasons. Depending on where they’re found in the world, temperate forests can be composed mostly of deciduous trees that lose their leaves in the fall or coniferous forests that are evergreens. There are even temperate rainforests, which are more commonly found closer to a coast where the humidity is higher.
Temperate forests have a high diversity of flora and fauna supported by rich soils and abundant precipitation. In addition to trees, lichen and mosses are commonly found in temperate forest ecosystems. Many species of mammals are found in temperate forests because they are more suited to variable temperatures throughout the year.
3. Taiga or Boreal Ecosystem
The third major forest ecosystem, the taiga ecosystem includes forests in the subarctic region of the Northern Hemisphere. Found just south of the Arctic Circle, the taiga experiences low temperatures all year long with long winters and very short summers. The boreal forest is therefore made mostly of coniferous or evergreen trees that have adapted to these cold temperatures.
Moose, caribou, and other large mammals are most abundant in the taiga. Bears, lynx, and Siberian tigers can be found in boreal forests as well, but most birds and smaller mammals are unable to live in this ecosystem year-round due to the extreme temperatures.
The tundra ecosystem is found both bordering boreal forests in the Northern Hemisphere and in far southern regions like Antarctica. The tundra is cold and dry, with very short growing seasons and less than ten inches (25.4 cm) of precipitation annually. The abiotic factors found in tundras make it very difficult for plants to grow, and the plants that do survive are small and adapted to short growing seasons. In fact, tundra comes from the Finnish word tunturia, which means treeless hill. Trees can’t survive in the cold and dry conditions of the tundra ecosystem.
Tundra wildlife includes small mammals that are adapted to cold weather like lemmings, arctic hares, and arctic ground squirrels. Top predators in the tundra ecosystem include arctic foxes, arctic wolves, polar bears, and snowy owls. All fauna or animals species found in the tundra use a combination of thick coats of fur and fat stores to survive the winter. Some tundra animals hibernate in the winter as well to survive a season with minimal food available.
5. Shrubland Ecosystem
Like the name suggests, the shrubland ecosystem is characterized by their large amount of shrubs and similar plants. Also known as scrubland, the bush, or heath, this ecosystem is influenced by mild weather that is wet during the winter and dry during the summer.
Shrubland ecosystems can be found all over the world, with unique biodiversity found in each part of the world. Each shrubland ecosystem is home to a wide diversity of plants, which in turn can support several animal, bird, and insect species. The milder temperatures make shrublands hospitable for insects and birds throughout the whole year.
6. Desert Ecosystem
While you may picture a desert as one of the hottest places in the world, desert ecosystems can also be found in cold regions. The main characteristic of a desert ecosystem is a very low moisture level, with less than ten inches of rain (25.4 cm) annually and very dry air throughout the year. Whether hot or cold, desert ecosystems have abiotic factors like a lack of moisture and poor soil or sand that make it difficult for biotic components to survive.
In cold desert ecosystems like Antarctica, animals have adapted by adding layers of fat and finding ways to conserve energy since food can be scarce. In hot desert ecosystems like the Sahara Desert, animals have adapted by becoming nocturnal and sleeping during the day in order to protect themselves from the extreme heat.
7. Grassland Ecosystem
The grassland ecosystem is found all over the world and is characterized by their open spaces where grasses are the dominant plant species. Also known as prairies or steppes, grasslands receive ten to thirty-five inches (25.4 cm to 88.9 cm) of rainfall a year and usually experience hot summer temperatures. Some trees may be found, but the open space and lower amounts of rainfall make it difficult for trees to thrive in grasslands.
Grazing animals are commonly found in grasslands and can include large species like buffalo and elephants. Many bird and insect species also thrive in grasslands.
1. Lentic Ecosystem
Lentic ecosystems are solely found in still, fresh waters like lakes, ponds, marshes, and even ditches and seeps. Freshwater makes up only 1.8% of the Earth’s total surface, making lentic ecosystems one of the least common ecosystems.
Depending on the depth of the water, lentic ecosystems can be found in layers. These layers differ from each other by the amount of light and oxygen found in the water. The abiotic factors found throughout the layers of lentic ecosystems determine which biotic species can be found, with some species found only at the bottom of the waterbody and other species found only at the top. Lentic ecosystems are often nutrient-rich and are home to many species of plants and animals.
2. Littoral Ecosystem
The littoral ecosystem is also known as the intertidal zone and is commonly found on the shores of lakes, rivers, and even seas. Wetlands are often found in littoral ecosystems where the depth of the water varies, allowing marshes, wet meadows, and wooded wetlands to all be considered littoral ecosystems.
The depth of water, temperature, and availability of nutrients determine what kind of flora and fauna are found in littoral ecosystems. There are often different layers of plants in the ecosystem depending on how tolerant they are to standing water. Littoral ecosystems often have high biodiversity in amphibian and insect species because of their semi-aquatic nature.
All ecosystems found in moving water are classified as lotic ecosystems. Lotic ecosystems are found in springs and rivers of all sizes, whether water moves in one direction like a river or has a more inconsistent flow like a spring.
Lotic ecosystems are broken into areas with fast-moving water and areas with pools and slower currents. Like other ecosystems, these different zones allow different plants and animals to thrive throughout the ecosystem.
4. Coral Reef Ecosystem
Coral reef ecosystems are the most diverse oceanic ecosystem. The shallow water allows more sunlight to be available, creating more nutrients that lead to increased plant and animal species.
Coral reef ecosystems cover about one percent of the ocean floor but about 25% of fish species depend on coral reef ecosystems for survival. This is because coral reefs often serve as protection, breeding grounds, and food sources for many different fish and other marine species.
5. Oceanic Ecosystem
Oceanic ecosystems include almost all of the saltwater ecosystems in the world. About 71% of the Earth’s surface is covered by the ocean, making oceanic ecosystems the most common in the world. Oceanic ecosystems are split into four zones based on depth of water.
The intertidal ocean ecosystem is found in coastal areas where the ocean interacts with both land and freshwater ecosystems.
The neritic ocean ecosystem is found in shallow areas of the ocean.
The abyssal ocean ecosystem is found in deep water on the ocean floor, where sunlight is unable to penetrate the water. This ecosystem is the least explored ecosystem in the world. The oceanic ecosystem covers the rest of the ocean.
Simply put, biodiversity describes the variety of species found in a particular ecosystem. Ecosystems like rainforests and coral reefs are high in biodiversity, meaning many different species live there.
Biodiversity is essential to ecosystem health. Having a wide range of plant and animal species that are specially adapted to that ecosystem allows the natural world to stay balanced and continue functioning without disruption.
Without biodiversity, an ecosystem can quickly crash and no longer be able to support its essential species.
Each ecosystem provides unique services that keep the natural world functioning. Some ecosystem services are utilized by people as well, from food and pharmaceutical production to carbon sinks.
The oceanic ecosystem is one of the greatest providers of ecosystem services. The ocean transfers heat from the equator to the poles to balance the global climate. Oceanic ecosystems play a major role in the hydrologic cycle of the world as water is evaporated from the ocean and deposited on land as precipitation. It’s also the most effective carbon sink on the planet, holding up to 54 times more carbon than the atmosphere. These ecosystem services provided by the oceanic ecosystems allow the planet to function properly and keep the natural systems of carbon, oxygen, and even water supply in balance.
While these ecosystem services happen naturally, they are jeopardized by habitat change caused by people. When rainforests are cut down to provide land for agriculture, we lose the essential ecosystem services rainforests provide like carbon sequestering, pharmaceutical production, and food sources from unique plants. When coral reefs are destroyed by ocean pollution, the coastlines they’re protected by are at risk from tidal waves and hurricanes.
Impacts of Climate Change
Climate change has the potential to impact ecosystems all over the world. Ecosystem health is intrinsically tied to the planet’s health but is greatly threatened by climate change. As each ecosystem is a delicate balance of abiotic and biotic components, the disruption of abiotic components would greatly change the ecosystem.
Climate change has the potential to create changes in precipitation, both increased and decreased temperatures, more frequent extreme weather, and more. These factors can all impact the essential abiotic components of climates all over the world, making these ecosystems suddenly inhospitable for their biotic components. In turn, losing biotic components of ecosystems reduces the health of the ecosystem as their biodiversity becomes less robust. Extinction events caused by climate change are becoming more common and could be harder to prevent in the future as ecosystems become less healthy and more delicate.
Several ecosystems also provide essential services that are disrupted by climate change. We rely on ecosystems like oceans and rainforests to serve as carbon sinks and rebalance the atmosphere, but if these ecosystems are damaged they will no longer be able to function in that way. We rely on grasslands, intertidal zones, and even rainforests for food sources. As global temperature and weather patterns change, it becomes more challenging to provide enough food for a growing population.