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What are ecosystems and biomes?

Ecosystems and biomes are two terms that are commonly used in ecology and environmental science. Although they are sometimes used interchangeably, there are discernible differences between ecosystems and biomes. In short, an ecosystem is described as a community of living organisms, most common animals and plants, that interact with each other in a specific environment. On the other hand, the term biome refers to a vast area of land consisting of vegetation and wildlife species that are adapted to, and live within, specific climatic or physical conditions.

Ecosystems - a community of organisms

Ecosystems cover much of the Earth’s surface and can vary in size, with some being incredibly large while others are rather small. Even arid deserts and extremely cold tundra areas contain ecosystems, as a variety of plants and animals that are well-adapted to their respective living conditions are found in each climate zone. Ecosystems are often rather fragile, with all animals and plants depending on each other, as well as the physical conditions, for their survival – if there is a disruption to a component of an ecosystem, this typically has repercussions for the rest of the ecosystem. For example, a change in temperature or rainfall can have severe impacts on the ecosystem. If a grassland ecosystem reduces its grass coverage due to a long dry season, this means less food for herbivore species; in turn, this can reduce the number of omnivores or top predators in the ecosystem. This is one of the countless examples which demonstrate that ecosystems depend on keeping a level of balance.

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The five main biomes

National Geographic defines five main types of biomes: aquatic, grassland, forest, desert and tundra. These can be subdivided into many further biome categories, including tropical rainforest, temperate forest, taiga, temperate grassland and savannah grassland. Different types (and subcategories) of biomes are influenced by climatic factors, in particular temperature and precipitation levels – however, they can occasionally be influenced by physical factors, as is the case with freshwater and marine aquatic biomes. Any wildlife and plants that live in a biome must be adapted to its specific climatic conditions. For example, tropical rainforests have a rather constant year-round climate of hot temperatures and incredibly high levels of rain, whereas temperate forests experience season-related temperature (and often rainfall) fluctuations occurring during the year. The typical flora and fauna found in each forest biome is therefore rather different, with plant and animal species adapted to their respective environment.

The relation between ecosystems and biomes

Ecosystems and biomes are connected to one another, as a certain type of ecosystem can often only exist in a specific biome. Also, since biomes occupy vast areas of the Earth’s surface, they typically contain a huge number of different ecosystems that thrive within them. For example, the tundra biome contains different landscapes: plains covered with patches of grass, rocky areas that harbour lichen, areas that see flowers blooming during the short summer, and limited patches of the boreal forest. As seen in other biomes, each landscape attracts different plant and animal species, and therefore harbours a specific ecosystem. Different ecosystems within a biome often interact with one another, resulting in a much larger ‘biome-wide’ ecosystem.

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