Our entire world is made up of different ecosystems where living things and the environment depend on each other to survive. Discover what an ecosystem is by exploring the different types of ecosystems on Earth.
What Is an Ecosystem?
An ecosystem is a group of organisms and their physical environment that function together as one unit. Basically, it’s a community or neighborhood in nature. Everything in an ecosystem helps each other in some way so the whole community can be healthy.
What Is a Natural Ecosystem?
Anything that is “natural” is produced and exists in nature without intervention from humans. Therefore, a natural ecosystem is a specific group of living things working together with each other and the area around them to survive and thrive.
There are two main types of natural ecosystems on Earth: aquatic and terrestrial. Each of these categories can be broken down further into more specific types of ecosystems.
The living things in an aquatic ecosystem can only survive in the water. There are two main types of aquatic ecosystems: freshwater and marine. Freshwater is any body of water that doesn’t contain saltwater or only has a small amount of salt in the water. Marine ecosystems, by contrast, exist in saltwater.
Examples of natural aquatic ecosystems are:
- Natural Ponds and Lakes: The Great Lakes are five freshwater lakes in east-central North America.
- Natural Rivers and Streams: The Nile River in Africa contains freshwater and is one of the longest rivers in the world.
- Natural Seas and Oceans: The Earth has one saltwater ocean that is divided into five ocean basins: the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic, and Southern oceans.
- Natural Estuaries: Places like the San Francisco Bay in California are where freshwater meets saltwater.
This marine ecosystem diagram shows the different living and nonliving elements of an ocean environment:
A terrestrial ecosystem is a community of living and nonliving things working together on land. They live and develop in the soil and air around them.
There are four main types of natural terrestrial ecosystems:
- Forest - Made mostly of dense trees and an abundance of plant species
- Desert - Marked by extremely low rainfall, not necessarily a hot climate
- Grassland - Includes an almost continuous cover of grasses, but not many taller plants
- Mountain - Features steep elevation changes in the terrain
These types of ecosystems are further broken down into seven common types of biomes:
- Tropical Rainforest: Hot, moist biomes like the Amazon jungle in South America receive a lot of precipitation.
- Deciduous Forest: Forests like those in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee are mostly made of trees that lose their leaves seasonally.
- Coniferous Forest: Forests like those in Birch River Wildland Provincial Park in Alberta, Canada have cold winters and humid summers. They are filled with trees that produce cones and needles. Coniferous trees are sometimes called evergreen trees.
- Temperate Grassland: Grasslands include many varieties of grasses with hot summers and cold winters, like the North American prairies.
- Tundra: Frozen subsoil prevents tall trees from growing in tundras like the Arctic Tundra.
- Savanna: Mixed woodland and grassland areas like the Serengeti in Tanzania and Kenya have trees spread far apart.
- Desert: Areas with very little precipitation like the Sahara Desert in Africa make it hard for plants and animals to survive.
Basic Components of a Natural Ecosystem
Every ecosystem has four main components, or characteristics, that make it function. These components are:
- Biotic components
- Abiotic components
- Flow of energy
- Cycling of nutrients
Biotic Components of an Ecosystem
The biotic components of any ecosystem are all the living things in that group. Examples of biotic components include plants, animals, and micro-organisms like bacteria.
All living things in an ecosystem are classified as producers, consumers, or decomposers.
- Plants are examples of producers because they make their own food and provide food to other living things.
- Animals are examples of consumers because they can’t make their own food and have to eat other plants and animals to live.
- Fungus is an example of a decomposer because it mostly eats dead organisms.
Abiotic Components of an Ecosystem
The abiotic components of any ecosystem are all the nonliving things in that group. These elements give the living things everything they need to live and thrive. Examples of abiotic components include:
Ecosystem Flow of Energy
The sun is the primary source of energy for most ecosystems. It serves as the starting point for the flow of energy in an ecosystem.
- Producers use the sunlight to make their own food and convert carbon dioxide into oxygen.
- Some animals (herbivores and omnivores) eat these producers (plants) so they can live. Energy is recycled.
- Some animals (carnivores) eat other animals so they can live. Energy is recycled again.
- Herbivores, omnivores and carnivores all leave behind waste after they eat by leaving scraps or “going to the bathroom.” Their bodies also become “waste” when they die.
- Decomposers break down the waste and return nutrients to the soil. Energy is released into the ecosystem.
- Producers use nutrients from the soil to thrive, and the cycle repeats itself.
Ecosystem Cycle of Nutrients
All of the chemicals that organisms take in pass through the food chain and back to the soil, air, and water. All of these chemicals and the new forms they take as they’re used and spread provide nourishment, or nutrients, for the ecosystem.
One example of a nutrient cycle in an ecosystem is the nitrogen cycle.
What Is an Artificial Ecosystem?
Anything that is “artificial” is made or simulated by humans. Therefore, an artificial ecosystem is a specific group of living things working together with their environment that has been somehow made or modified by people.
Examples of artificial ecosystems include:
Natural ecosystems are found all around the world and are essential to all life. Can you tell what type of ecosystem you live in and how you help keep your community of living and nonliving things healthy?