Learning outcomes of the course unit
This module aims at providing the background of modern ecology. Emphasis is posed on the role of ecology as a skill for graduates, who are requested to tackle the main issues on management and conservation of natural resources and management and remediation of altered environmental processes.
At the end of the module, students are expected to be able to
- know and analyze fundamental topics of general ecology: adaptation of organisms to environment, ecology of population and community, structure and processes of the ecosystem,
- use these knowledge to solve problems on: ecological stoichiometry and identification of limiting factors, population growth with and without resource limitation, competition between two populations, application of ecological indices for the evaluation of species diversity.
-Students are also expected to be capable of identifying and analysing, at least in general terms, environmental problems of various complexity, for example, pollution and degraded ecosystem functioning, and over-exploitation of natural resources.
basic knowledge on chemistry, geology, vegetal and animal biology, and microbiology
Course contents summary
This module composes of six parts.
The first part deals with the main concepts of ecology and their evolution in the last century. The main focus is on how ecology can contribute at solving environmental problems, e.g. conservation of natural resources and management of altered environmental processes.
The second part deals with 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 is proposed with the basic models of Lotka-Volterra. Special attention is then paid to the food web theory. In the fifth section the ecosystem is presented as the basic unit for the analysis of environmental systems, with the analysis of energy flow and biogeochemical cycles, and their temporal dimension. The lastpart is dedicated to the introduction to biodiversity and ecosystem services.
Part 1. Basic concepts and history of ecology.
What ecology does. Hierarchical organization of ecological systems and emerging properties. Spatial and time scales in ecology.
Part 2. Physical and chemical factors.
Water and climate. The water cycle. Water and thermal regulation and its effects on aquatic ecosystems.
Chemical Factors in the main environmental components: Atmosphere, Hydrosphere, Lytosphere/Pedosphere and Biosphere. Elemental composition and ecological role of elements with atomic number less than 30.
Energy and ecological systems: relevance and role of ultraviolet, visible and infrared radiation. Interaction between radiation and atmospheric gases.
Part 2. Organisms and environment.
Environmental conditions and adaptations of organisms. Habitat, niche, tolerance and stress.
Part 3. Population Ecology.
Populations and meta-populations. Sampling methods. Exponential growth. Resources limitation, intra-specific competition and logistics growth. r and K strategies.
Interaction between populations. Interspecific competition: exclusion and coexistence. Lotka Volterra equations. Predator-prey interactions. Backgrounds and simple modelling. Optimal foraging. Other biological interactions (hints): mutualism, symbiosis, parasitism, mimicry and co-evolution.
Part 4. Community ecology.
The community as a result of interactions between populations. Species composition: Simpson and Shannon indices. Organization and trophic structure. Trophic networks. Limitation effects: trophic cascading interactions, top-down and bottom-up controls.
Part 5. Ecology of ecosystem.
Conceptual models of energy flow: Elton, Lindeman and Odum. Pyramids of numbers, biomass and energy. Criticism to the trophic-dynamic model. Metabolic theory.
The carbon cycle as a link between abiotic and living systems. Primary production and decomposition: reactions, processes and limiting factors.
Introduction to biogeochemical cycles. How cycles works in tropical rainforest, deciduous continental forest, lake and agro-system. Basic concepts and processes of C, N, P, Fe and S. cycles. Biogeochemical Buffer Capacity.
Ecological succession. Biogeographic approach. The pioneer and climax phases of succession. Biomass, productivity and respiration during succession. Types of succession: hydrarchich and xerarchich. Factors driving succession: energy, trophic interactions, competition, facilitation. Disturbances, Resilience, Resistance and Regime Shift.
Part 6. Biodiversity
Hutchinson and the Homage to Santa Rosalia. The Convention on Biological Diversity. Phenotypic, genetic, species, ecosystem and landscape diversity. Alpha, beta, and gamma diversity. Factors that affect biodiversity: latitude, productivity, natural and anthropic stress. Intermediate disturbance hypothesis.
Biodiversity, and ecosystem goods and services. Introduction to Millenium Ecosystem Assessment
Recommended Texbook: Smith T.M. & Smith R.L., 2016. Elementi di Ecologia. 9^ edizione. Pearson Italia, Milano-Torino and/or the original English version Smith T.M. & Smith R.L., 2015. Elements of Ecology. 9th edition, Pearson Education Inc. The slides of all subjects, and teacher’s notes on parts 1, 2 and 5 can be downloaded from the ELLY section "Teaching Materials" http://elly.bioscienze.unipr.it/2016/course/view.php?id=118.
The module is organized into four main activities
- lectures on the main concepts of modern ecology (6 credits, 42 hours);
- exercises carried out in class by the students with the assistance of the teacher (1 credit, 12 hours);
- introduction to biodiversity and ecosystem goods and services (1 credit, 7 hours);
- seminar dealing with a case study dealing with how ecology can be applied to management and decision making (1 credit, 7 hours).
The course does not include laboratory and field activities which are instead proposed in the second module "Analysis of environmental systems".
Assessment methods and criteria
The achievement of the module goals is verified with a test over 2 hours..
The test consists of 6-8 multiple-choice questions, rated 1 point each, on definition and fundamental concepts; 4-6 open-questions, rated up to 3 points each, requiring a thorough presentation and discussion of ecological processes (ability to analyze and apply knowledge), 3-4 exercises rated up to 4 points each (ability to apply knowledge).
The final score is given by the sum of the scores of the individual questions/exercises. The maximum score is 35. The exam is passed with minimum score 18. Test with score greater than or equal to 32 are rated cum laude.
Examples of tests are available in the "Teaching Material" section http://elly.bioscienze.unipr.it/2016/course/view.php?id=118. The test outcome is communicated via email to the student concerned and recorded in ESSE3.
The module "Ecology" is integrated with the module "Analysis of ecological systems". The two modules are evaluated with two distinct tests. After passing the exam of the module "Ecology" the student can attend 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.