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Healthy ecosystems

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This diagram of a marine ecosystem includes the living and non-living elements which interact and are interconnected. Image: Open University.

An ecosystem is made up of animals, plants and bacteria that share an environment with non-living elements, such as water, sand and rocks. These living and non-living elements are all interconnected.

An ecosystem has living parts that rely on non-living things. Because living things are affected by where they live, it is important to study both living and non-living things together to get a full picture.

What makes up an ecosystem?

An ecosystem must have:

  • producers
  • consumers
  • decomposers
  • dead and inorganic matter.

You can watch this video about what makes up a marine ecosystem.

All ecosystems need energy from an outside source – this is usually the sun.

Producers make food from inorganic matter. Plants are producers – they make sugar through photosynthesis using sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to make food.

Consumers eat producers. All animals are consumers. They cannot make their own food so they must eat plants and/or other animals.

Decomposers break down dead matter. They may be bacteria or animals and they feed off dead plants and animals.

Inorganic matter is what non-living things are made from. These are things like air, water, rocks, soil, metals and nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon). Inorganic matter is important in an ecosystem because it is what producers use.

An ecosystem must have producers such as this kelp to produce food. Image: LEARNZ.

Why is knowing about ecosystems important?

Anything that affects one part of an ecosystem will, in turn, affect others. Sadly, people often do things that harm an ecosystem. Even though our actions may seem small, they can have large effects.

An example is over-fishing sharks which can have terrible effects on reef ecosystems. By lowering the number of sharks, the fish that sharks normally eat increase and then there are too many. This puts the whole reef ecosystem out of balance.

An ecosystem also has consumers which eat producers and or other consumers. Image: Leigh Tait.

Resilient ecosystems

A resilient, or strong, ecosystem is able to cope with stress and adapt to change without losing important plants or animals. A resilient ecosystem can cope with change or recover from a disturbance. A resilient ecosystem usually has a lot of different plants and animals living within it - a high level of biodiversity.

Without resilience or strength, an ecosystem eventually cannot cope with the effects of change and will collapse or change in large ways where less variety of plants and animals can survive.

Biodiversity

The variety of life in natural ecosystems is known as biodiversity. Biodiversity can play a key role in the resilience of an ecosystem. Ecosystems seem to be more resilient if there are many species all carrying out the same functions or services (such as filtering water or photosynthesis).

Complete the Healthy Ecosystems quiz.

> Discover more about marine ecosystems in Aotearoa and seaweed

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