Ecological communities

Ecological communities

Assemblages of living organisms that occur together in an area. The nature of the forces that knit these assemblages into organized systems and those properties of assemblages that manifest this organization have been topics of intense debate among ecologists since the beginning of the twentieth century. On the one hand, there are those who view a community as simply consisting of species with similar physical requirements, such as temperature, soil type, or light regime. The similarity of requirements dictates that these species be found together, but interactions between the species are of secondary importance and the level of organization is low. On the other hand, there are those who conceive of the community as a highly organized, holistic entity, with species inextricably and complexly linked to one another and to the physical environment, so that characteristic patterns recur, and properties arise that one can neither understand nor predict from a knowledge of the component species. In this view, the ecosystem (physical environment plus its community) is as well organized as a living organism, and constitutes a superorganism. Between these extremes are those who perceive some community organization but not nearly enough to invoke images of holistic superorganisms. See Ecosystem

Every community comprises a given group of species, and their number and identities are distinguishing traits. Most communities are so large that it is not possible to enumerate all species; microorganisms and small invertebrates are especially difficult to census. However, particularly in small, well-bounded sites such as lakes or islands, one can find all the most common species and estimate their relative abundances. The number of species is known as species richness, while species diversity refers to various statistics based on the relative numbers of individuals of each species in addition to the number of species. The rationale for such a diversity measure is that some communities have many species, but most species are rare and almost all the individuals (or biomass) in such a community can be attributed to just a few species. Such a community is not diverse in the usual sense of the word. Patterns of species diversity abound in the ecological literature; for example, pollution often effects a decrease in species diversity.

The main patterns of species richness that have been detected are area and isolation effects, successional gradients, and latitudinal gradients. Larger sites tend to have more species than do small ones, and isolated communities (such as those on oceanic islands) tend to have fewer species than do less isolated ones of equal size. Later communities in a temporal succession tend to have more species than do earlier ones, except that the last (climax) community often has fewer species than the immediately preceding one. Tropical communities tend to be very species-rich, while those in arctic climates tend to be species-poor. This observation conforms to a larger but less precise rule that communities in particularly stressful environments tend to have few species.

Communities are usually denoted by the presence of species, known as dominants, that contain a large fraction of the community's biomass, or account for a large fraction of a community's productivity. Dominants are usually plants. Determining whether communities at two sites are truly representatives of the “same” community requires knowledge of more than just the dominants, however. “Characteristic” species, which are always found in combination with certain other species, are useful in deciding whether two communities are of the same type, though the designation of “same” is arbitrary, just as is the designation of “dominant” or “characteristic.”

Communities often do not have clear spatial boundaries. Occasionally, very sharp limits to a physical environmental condition impose similarly sharp limits on a community. For example, serpentine soils are found sharply delimited from adjacent soils in many areas, and have mineral concentrations strikingly different from those of the neighboring soils. Thus they support plant species that are very different from those found in nearby nonserpentine areas, and these different plant species support animal species partially different from those of adjacent areas.

Here two different communities are sharply bounded from each other. Usually, however, communities grade into one another more gradually, through a broad intermediate region (an ecotone) that includes elements of both of the adjacent communities, and sometimes other species as well that are not found in either adjacent community.

The environment created by the dominant species, by their effects on temperature, light, humidity, and other physical factors, and by their biotic effects, such as allelopathy and competition, may entrain some other species so that these other species' spatial boundaries coincide with those of the dominants. See Physiological ecology (plant), Population ecology

More or less distinct communities tend to follow one another in rather stylized order. As with recognition of spatial boundaries, recognition of temporal boundaries of adjacent communities within a sere (a temporary community during a successional sequence at a site) is partly a function of the expectations that an observer brings to the endeavor. Those who view communities as superorganisms are inclined to see sharp temporal and spatial boundaries, and the perception that one community does not gradually become another community over an extended period of time confirms the impression that communities are highly organized entities, not random collections of species that happen to share physical requirements. However, this superorganismic conception of succession has been replaced by an individualistic succession. Data on which species are present at different times during a succession show that there is not abrupt wholesale extinction of most members of a community and concurrent simultaneous colonization by most species of the next community. Rather, most species within a community colonize at different times, and as the community is replaced most species drop out at different times. That succession is primarily an individualistic process does not mean that there are not characteristic changes in community properties as most successions proceed. Species richness usually increases through most of the succession, for example, and stratification becomes more highly organized and well defined. A number of patterns are manifest in aspects of energy flow and nutrient cycling. See Ecological succession

Living organisms are characterized not only by spatial and temporal structure but by an apparent purpose or activity termed teleonomy. In the first place, the various species within a community have different trophic relationships with one another. One species may eat another, or be eaten by another. A species may be a decomposer, living on dead tissue of one or more other species. Some species are omnivores, eating many kinds of food; others are more specialized, eating only plants or only animals, or even just one other species. These trophic relationships unite the species in a community into a common endeavor, the transmission of energy through the community. This energy flow is analogous to an organism's mobilization and transmission of energy from the food it eats.

By virtue of differing rates of photosynthesis by the dominant plants, different communities have different primary productivities. Tropical forests are generally most productive, while extreme environments such as desert or alpine conditions harbor rather unproductive communities. Agricultural communities are intermediate. Algal communities in estuaries are the most productive marine communities, while open ocean communities are usually far less productive. The efficiency with which various animals ingest and assimilate the plants and the structure of the trophic web determine the secondary productivity (production of organic matter by animals) of a community. Marine secondary productivity generally exceeds that of terrestrial communities. See Agroecosystem, Biological productivity

A final property that any organism must have is the ability to reproduce itself. Communities may be seen as possessing this property, though the sense in which they do so does not support the superorganism metaphor. A climax community reproduces itself through time simply by virtue of the reproduction of its constituent species, and may also be seen as reproducing itself in space by virtue of the propagules that its species transmit to less mature communities. For example, when a climax forest abuts a cutover field, if no disturbance ensues, the field undergoes succession and eventually becomes a replica of the adjacent forest. Both temporally and spatially, then, community reproduction is a collective rather than an emergent property, deriving directly from the reproductive activities of the component species. See Desert, Ecology, Grassland ecosystem, Mangrove

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