An ecosystem -- short for “ecological system” -- is a community of all of the components that interact with one another in the same local environment. Examples of ecosystems include forests, meadows, ponds, lakes, wetlands, estuaries and coral reefs. Ecosystems possess living, biological elements, as well as non-living, chemical and physical components.
All ecosystems contain non-living components, which may also be referred to as abiotic or inorganic components. Air, sunlight, soil, rocks, minerals, water and precipitation are examples of non-living parts of an ecosystem. These components make life in an ecosystem possible. For instance, soil provides plants with nutrients and a growing medium, while the atmosphere provides oxygen for creatures to breathe. The inorganic chemical elements of an ecosystem, such as oxygen, nitrogen, carbon or phosphorous, are exchanged with the living members of an ecosystem in a natural cycle.
Plants are known as primary producers in an ecosystem. They obtain everything they need to flourish from the non-living parts of the ecosystem -- specifically, from the soil, air or water. From these components, plants manufacture the organic compounds they use for food. For instance, through the process of photosynthesis, many green plants, such as flowers and trees, convert light from the sun into sugars on which they thrive. Plants in turn provide food to other members of the ecosystem -- that’s why they’re known as producers.
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All sorts of animals -- butterflies, spiders, deer, humans, eagles, turtles, dolphins and eels -- may be a part of the animal life of a particular ecosystem, depending on its locality. They are often known as consumers because they typically obtain what they need to live by consuming plants or other animals. Consumer animals can be divided into three main types: herbivores, carnivores and omnivores. Herbivores, such as rabbits and sheep, eat only plants. Carnivores, such as lions and sharks, mainly consume herbivores, while omnivores consume plants as well as herbivores.
When plants and animals in an ecosystem die, organisms called detritivores eat them. This process is known as decomposition; a familiar example of this is a backyard compost pile. Types of detritivores include bacteria, worms and fungi. Essentially, detritivores complete the cycle of life in an ecosystem by converting the matter of dead animals and plants to inorganic nutrients, which are then used again by other, living plants – thus bringing the interaction of the elements of an ecosystem full circle.