Organisms interact with each other throughout the living world. Ecology is the branch of biology that studies organisms interacting with each other and with the environment. Ecologists study single species as well as ecosystems (EK-oh-sis-tuhmz). Ecosystems are communities of living species and their physical environments. Such studies reveal that organisms depend on each other as well as on minerals, nutrients, water, gases, heat, and other elements of their physical surroundings. For example, a panther eats a bird, which eats nuts from trees. The tree needs carbon dioxide and water. Carbon dioxide is a main byproduct of all animals.
Scientists now recognize the huge effect that humans have had on the world's environment. For millions of years, tropical rain forests, as shown in Figure 1-6, have existed as stable—but fragile— environments. These forests play a vital role in the global environment. Humans have cleared vast areas of these forests in recent years. The destruction of these forests, in addition to other ecological changes in other regions, could impact all life on Earth.
Tropical rain forests, such as this one in the Amazon River basin in Ecuador, support an extraordinary variety and number of plants and animals, which are all on top of a very thin layer of fertile topsoil.
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