Learning outcomes of the course unit
The module Ecology aims at providing and improving the basic knowledge on the main topics of modern ecology, along with its evolution in the last century in relation to the main environmental issues. Students are expected to achieve the capacity of analysing ecosyetm structure and process and to tackle the main ecological issues of sustainable environmental management, natural resources exploitation and nature conservation.
The student is expected to achieve the basic knowledge in the various fields of general ecology: adaptation of organisms to the environment, population and community ecology, structure and ecosystem processes. A separate section is devoted to the study of biodiversity and ecosystem services, issues of great relevance, not only for environmental management, but also for economic development.
The ability to use ecological concept and data to solve elemental problems is achieved with exercises carried out under the teacher supervision on ecological stoichiometry, population growth with and without resource limitation, competition between two population exploiting the same resources, etc..
Course contents summary
This course is divided into six parts.
The first part deals with fundamentals of ecology and their evolution in the last century. The main focus is on how ecology can contribute at solving environmental problems, e.g. management and conservation of natural resources and environmental processes.
The second part address the main abiotic factors and their effect on living organisms. The approach to auto-ecology is developed focusing on environmental conditions and adaptations and presenting the concepts of habitat, niche, stress and tolerance.
The third part is dedicated to population ecology, with particular reference to structure, dispersion, growth and limiting factors.
In the fourth section the community is presented as a result of the biotic interactions between populations, with special reference to inter-specific competition and predation. A first quantitative approach with the basic models of Lotka-Volterra. Special attention is then paid to the food web theory.
In the fifth section is the ecosystem is presented as the basic unit for the analysis of environmental systems, with reference to energy flows and biogeochemical cycles.
The final part of the course is dedicated to biodiversity and ecosystem services.
Basic concepts and history of ecology. Organization of ecological systems. Spatial and time scales in ecology. Physical factors and climate. Chemical composition of atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere and soil. The role of elements with atomic number <30 in ecology. Water and thermal control. Energy quality and quantity.
Environmental conditions and adaptations of organisms. Habitat, niche, stress and tolerance. Niche theory.
Population ecology. Structure, dispersal and sampling methods. Exponential growth. Limitation of resources, intraspecific competition and logistic growth. Interspecific competition: exclusion and coexistence. Lotka Volterra equations. Predator-prey interactions. Other biological interactions: mutualism, symbiosis, parasitism and mimicry. Predator-prey coevolution.
Community ecology. Organization and trophic structure. Food webs. Effect of limitation: trophic cascade interactions, top-down and bottom-up control. Ecological succession.
Ecosystem ecology. The carbon cycle as a link between abiotic and living systems. Primary production and decomposition: reactions, processes and limiting factors. Conceptual models of energy transport in ecosystems: Elton, Lindeman and Odum. The pyramids of numbers, biomass and energy. Critical to the trophodinamics concpets.
Major biogeochemical cycles and water cycle. Biogeochemical cycles in tropical rain forest, temperate deciduous forest, lakes and an agro-systems. Basic concepts of C, N, P, Fe and S cycles. Ecological stoichiometry. Perturbations, resilience, buffer capacity and regime shift.
Biodiversity: Hutchinson and the Homage to Santa Rosalia. Phenotypic, genetic, species, ecosystem and landscape diversity. Methods for studying biodiversity. Ecological indices. Factors that affect biodiversity: latitude, productivity, natural and anthropogenic stress, The intermediate disturbance hypothesis. Species-area relationship: Island biogeography.
Biodiversity, ecosystem goods and services. Introduction to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.
Recommended Texbook: Smith T.M. & Smith R.L., 2013. Elementi di Ecologia. 8^ edizione. Pearson Italia, Milano-Torino and/or the original English version Smith T.M. & Smith R.L., 2012. Elements of Ecology. 8th edition, Pearson Education Inc.
Lecture notes and slides of the lectures (pdf documents downloadable from the "Materiale didattico" box, (http://scienzenatamb.unipr.it/cgi-bin/campusnet/corsi.pl)
Lectures aiming at presenting and discussing the main concepts of modern ecology (5 credits).
Exercises performed in class by students with the teacher assistance (1 credit)
Presentation of the main issues related to biodiversity and ecosystem services, accompanied by reading and commentary on some scientific articles on this subject (3 credits)
Assessment methods and criteria
After completing this course the student is able to understand and analyze the main characteristics of ecosystem structures and related processes. This background enables the student to deal with the study of environmental problems with different levels of complexity.
The exam is organised in a written test composed of 8-10 short questions (with a short answer), 6-7 open questions and 2-3 exercizes. The exam is passed with score 18; the maximum score is 35; score > 32 corresponds to 30 cum laude. Students who pass the written examination are eligible for the exam of the second module on “Analysis of ecological systems". Examples of test are available in the "Teaching materials box" (http://scienzenatamb.unipr.it/cgi-bin/campusnet/corsi.pl)
The module "Ecology" is integrated with the module "Analysis of ecological systems". The two module are evaluated with two distinct tests. The admission to the analysis of ecological systems is After passing the exam of the module "Ecology" the student can take the exam of the module "Analysis of ecological systems". The final grade is the average weighted by the credits of the votes of the two exams.