Ecology is the study of the relationships of organisms among themselves and with their environments. Ecological theory and experimental work in laboratory and field make extensive use of a number of disciplines in the biological and physical sciences, including evolutionary biology, anatomy, physiology, molecular biology and biochemistry, behavior, geology, and meteorology. The traditional hierarchical nature of ecology includes studies of individuals of the same species living in the same place at the same time (population ecology), multiple populations which live together and interact (community ecology), and the complex interactions in broad geographic regions of living organisms and the abiotic world, including examination of energy flow and nutrient cycling (ecosystem ecology).
This curriculum unit takes an ecosystem approach to ecology, and it is developed in the context of the climatic factors which shape and have shaped the living and non-living worlds. I discuss the relation between ecology and climate by looking at two well-known and extensively studied regions of North America, the temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest—specifically, the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State—and the Florida Everglades. With the Olympic Mountains in the extreme northwestern corner of the contiguous United States and the Everglades in the extreme southeastern corner, these ecosystems are so far away from each other as they can be. Yet, they share a number of ecological characteristics, and their climates, somewhat surprisingly, have much in common.
The Olympic Peninsula is approximately 1 1/2 times the size of the state of Connecticut. Within this small area it has marine and estuarine communities, temperate old-growth rain forest, riparian habitat, montane forest, Arctic-alpine communities, and rugged, glacier-covered mountains. In South Florida, the combined Kissimmii River-Lake Okeechobee-Florida Everglades hydrologic system is equally diverse in its plant associations and habitat types. Everglades National Park, which occupies the southern tip of the Florida Peninsula, has marine and estuarine communities, coastal mangroves, coastal prairie, sawgrass marsh, tree islands (including bayheads, willowheads, bald cypress domes, and hardwood hammocks), and pinelands, and in nearby Big Cypress National Preserve there is also deepwater Bald Cypress swamp. Olympic temperate rain forest and Florida Everglades thus are characterized by tremendous spatial heterogeneity in their plant associations.
The diversity of the two North American regions considered here is due in large part to issues of climate. In looking at Olympic Rain Forest and Florida Everglades, I refer to their representative plants and animals and to some of the adaptations which enable these organisms to exist in their respective climates.
The unit is intended for high school students in introductory or advanced biology courses. The unit also is intended to be adaptable to biology courses offered at earlier grade levels. Teachers may use the unit to illustrate a number of themes in ecology, including the broad diversity of climatic regimes within North America (only two being considered here), the diversity of organisms living on our continent, the broad range of adaptive strategies these organisms have for survival and reproductive success, the complex interactions between the biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) worlds, and the short-term and long-term changes which are regular features of most ecosystems.
The majority of my students have extremely limited travel experience. They know little about their own immediate natural surroundings, including the urban ecology of New Haven and the surrounding forests and coastal and inland wetlands of Connecticut. They know less still about ecological systems of other parts of the country. The concept of being in a forest, a marsh, or on a mountain top often is remote and typically is shaped by images presented by television or film. This unit is intended to acquaint my students with two remarkable ecosystems in the United States and to maximize an appreciation for the different biological regions of our country. While we cannot travel to the Olympic Peninsula or the Florida Everglades, we can learn about these special places through use of slides (available as Teachers Institute Classroom Materials), current newspaper articles, and reference articles and books, many of which are readily available.
I consider a number of philosophical issues to be important in the teaching of this unit. Science education should be interesting and exciting. It should be a cumulative endeavor, starting with reference to previous experiences and using an inquiry method of instruction to promote new experiences. Activities in laboratory and field should be a strong basis for learning. Discrete facts and information should be integrated into a larger picture of patterns and trends. (We want to see the forest as well as the trees.)
In addition, current topics in research should be considered as part of the study. Consideration should also be given to human attitudes and values relating to the subject matter, and to issues of environmental concern, on local, regional, national, and international levels. Finally, the study of science should suggest direct bearing on a student’s life. It should provide motivation for additional study based on a real connectedness to oneself and one’s future life activities. “What’s in it for me?” needs to be an inherent part of the reason for studying a given topic.
Because of shortage of space, this unit does not present information on the complex management issues of the Pacific Northwest old-growth forest and the Everglades or the severe ecological impact that human activity has had in each ecosystem. Teachers seeking information on these subjects will have no trouble finding it, as management of old-growth forest and restoration of the Florida Everglades have become the two highest priorities for integrating issues of ecology and economics in the country today.
The nature of Teachers Institute curricular units—indeed, of all curricular materials—is that they are works in progress, intended for future development, modification and refinement. This unit is no exception. In preparing it, I have devoted much of my writing to a consideration of Olympic climate and ecology, much less to Everglades climate and ecology, even though research time was fairly evenly balanced between the two topics. Some aspects of the unit are well developed, and others require more work, but I have attempted to provide background information and suggest teaching strategies which are representative of my thinking. Future work on this unit will shorten some sections, lengthen others, and strengthen all.