What Are Ecosystem Services?

managed park garden
managed garden ecosystem

Ecosystems are natural capital, the biotic and abiotic benefits that people obtain from their environment, animals, plants, soils, and micro-bacteria.

Micro-bacteria in marine ecosystems, for example, produces breathable oxygen. Plants and soils help regulate climate by capturing carbon dioxide in the air and storing it underground. Wetlands reduce flooding risks in coastal territories. Medicines are extracted from plants like sage, ginger, turmeric, and aloe vera. Animals are hunted for food.

The 2006 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) outlined four distinct categories of ecosystem services to help map the different kinds of benefits provided to human populations. The categories can help us identify what advantages are gained by people and suggest the value of the service. Though it can be difficult to put a price on nature’s contributions, estimates are somewhat determined by the service‚Äôs utility, either for humanity, other species, or the ecosystem itself. Categorizing ecosystem services can inform policy and be implemented in conservation research.

Four Types of Ecosystem Services

There are four main types of ecosystem services: provisioning, regulating, supporting, and cultural. Each one of these classifications describes unique outputs made possible by ecological systems. A single ecosystem may produce multiple types of services at once.

Provisioning Services

Provisioning ecosystem services are the substantive, or material benefits from an ecosystem. This type of service includes raw materials like wood, fresh water, metals, and medicinal herbs. Foods too are provisioning services that are grown on farms, synthesized from natural ingredients, or extracted from animals.

Regulating Services

Regulating ecosystem services are sometimes called managing services. These services govern the cycles within an ecosystem. Regulating services play essential roles in managing the water cycle, the carbon cycle, soil quality, crop pollination, and water purification. Regulating services are those that moderate climate and the intensity and frequency of weather events.

Supporting Services

The natural processes within ecosystems are part of the ecosystem’s own continued survival and maturity. As ecosystems mature, they can grow more complex, support greater profiles of species richness and allow novel interactions between organisms to develop. Supporting services refer to an ecosystem’s capacity to keep itself functioning over time.

Cultural Services

Cultural services are the nonmaterial contributions that we derive from the natural world. Around the world, people rely on nature for their sense of cultural identity, including art, architecture, and recreation.

Indigo Agriculture Versus Climate Change

converted monoculture plot

Indigo Agriculture aims to improve carbon sequestration in commercial and private farm soils as a climate change mitigation strategy. On the face of it, this solution seems viable. With the use of their microbial seed inoculants, Indigo farming increases soil health and carbon sequestration as a result, which makes measurable improvements in crop yields.

Better farming practices allows plants and soils to take in more water and nutrients and produces larger quantities of healthy crops. More crops with better health. This amounts to more carbon sequestration in crops and soils that have received the Indigo treatment. But will farming practices be enough to address climate change on a global scale?

What Are Nature-Based Solutions

Nature-based solutions are practices which protect, sustainably manage, restore or otherwise enhance natural ecosystems in an effort to limit the effects of climate change by increasing natural resiliency. Natural environments already possess the ability to recover after losses from things like wildfire damage, storms or volcanic eruption. Changes like these often degrade ecosystems and can take decades or perhaps centuries to recover from naturally.

Given sufficient time, however, nutrients reoccur in the environment, vegetation regrows and species return. Nature-based solutions are human’s way of supplementing nature’s regenerative aptness. Nature-based solutions may include reforesting, rewilding and bioengineering techniques. The intention is to assist ecosystems as they nurse themselves back to health through natural processes.

The greatest carbon sinks are biological stores – plants, macrobacteria and animals, soils, and bodies of water. Without sinks, greenhouse gases are unable to cycle through Earth, instead, they remain in our atmosphere and add to average heat maximums. Though we can not undo the colossal impact that we’ve anthropogenic activity have already had on biodiversity and natural habitats, we can limit our impact moving forward. Nature-based solutions enable ecospheres to regulate climate and secure climate stabilization.

Can Indigo Agriculture Address Climate Change On A Global Scale?

Managed ecosystems should not be overlooked as they as meaningful climate action. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization five billion hectares. In other words, about 38 percent of all land being used globally is dedicated to farming techniques in some fashion. As human populations grow, so too does our reliance on nature’s contributions. Indigo Agriculture may help set a new standard in farming strategies, or at least cause farmers to rethink large scale farming operations.

Soils that have been damaged from over-fertilization and monoculture practices can be given new hope with Indigo Agriculture‘s patented technology. Farming practices that discourage plant diversity through herbicide use or over use pesticides degrade soil quality over time. Degraded soils are usually less fertile, meaning that they absorb less water, take in fewer nutrients and support less plant life than otherwise healthy soils. Damaged soils are characterized by disease, poor nutrient absorption, inefficient water absorption and inferior crop yields. Indigo farming improves disease resistance, nutrient and water intake and severe weather resilience. Improving plant health, diversity and overall growth will allow for more nutrients and water to flow down into soils.

Environmental DNA

EDNA (Environmental DNA) sampling is a method of surveying distribution patterns and population sizes for species within an ecological community. EDNA makes use of genetic deposits that organisms leave behind. Ecologists use hair, fecal matter, feathers, and any other forensic-like evidence that they can find in an environment. Using EDNA to sample populations is minimally invasive and does not involve extracting genetic material directly from the targeted organisms. Anthropogenic disturbances continue to plague ecosystems the world over, affecting species abundance, species variety, migratory patterns, and habitats.

Without biodiversity measurements, conservations can’t know how which species are being lost, or how species populations change over time. Measuring biodiversity is not as simple as measuring force or distance; biodiversity can be understood in a multitude of ways. For example, some researchers use species richness -the total number of different species – to quantify diversity. Others may count the number of individual organisms of each species in an area. What’s important is that the community being sampled gives researchers basic information about the occurrence, distribution, and abundance of the species being observed. Using environmental DNA can avoid putting unnecessary stress on the environment and species involved. Conservationists, then, can use environmental DNA to survey species and habitats while doing their part to keep ecosystems intact.

Sampling builds our knowledge of species and how they are distributed which informs conservation projects and environmental policy. Environmental DNA can carry information about the life of the organism involved, like other creatures it may have interacted with or what foods may be part of its diet. This may not always be possible by photographing species. While it may be possible by capturing and tagging animals, these methods present other limitations.

Some species are simply difficult to detect. This could be because the species itself may be incredibly small, or its population sizes are spread thin, making the targeted species too elusive to observe by conventional means. Sampling with EDNA can eliminate limitations associated with capturing species, photographing them, or tracking them. However, EDNA can not be used to determine population quality information such as bodily features and sex ratios. Therefore, DNA retrieved from environments must be used in conjunction with other detection techniques in some cases.


Mycorrhiza is a term that refers to the mutually beneficial exchange between plants and fungi which takes place underground. The interconnections between fungal mycelium and plant roots is perhaps one the most vital symbiotic relationships for life on Earth. Once mycelium fills the tight spaces between plants roots, it can exchange nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen in exchange for sugars that the plants produce. This relationship is advantages for both species.

What Is Mycelium?

Mycelium is the subgroup of bacteria that spreads in thin (thinner than plant roots) wiry branches underground. Mycelium has been likened to the underground root systems that connect communities of plants together. However, mycelium branches are made of groups of hyphae, which are the primary means of growth for fungal lifeforms. Hyphae allows nutrients to be assimilated from various sources.

Mycelium provides the protein glomalin which acts as a binding agent for soil, making its aggregate particles stick together and more resistant to rain or wind erosion. By enhancing soil health, glomalin makes plants more likely to grow through adverse conditions. Farmers often use glomalin to improve crop production and increase water retention in plant roots. As if that weren’t good enough, glomalin may also aid in carbon dioxide (CO2) absorption in soils and plants by enhancing overall water retention.

U.S. Declares Ivory-Billed Woodpecker and 23 Other Species Extinct

After years of empty searches, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has just declared more than 20 species extinct. The list of extinct species has one plant, a bat, two fish, eight freshwater mussels, eleven birds. Moving these species from the ‘endangered species’ list to the ‘extinct’ list marks the end of official search efforts to find them.

The “Legendary” Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

One of the more popular birds, the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), is endemic to the southeast United States and Cuba. This bird hasn’t had a confirmed siting in decades, and thus, some officials have concluded that the bird has died out entirely. There doesn’t appear to be a consensus on the matter; some believe that its premature to give up searching for Campephilus principalis.

Delaying the extinction declaration may be helpful for future search missions. Once a species has been officially deemed extinct, its likely that searches will cease completely, placing limits on conservation efforts, funding and incentives for further research on the species. However, this is not a sufficient reason to keep an unfruitful search going.

The disappearance of the ivory-billed woodpecker foreshadows the looming fate for species in wetlands around the world, as these ecological systems are especially sensitive to flooding, temperature fluctuations and drought. Extinctions can have several different causes. In some cases, the causes may be naturally-occurring: changes in average temperatures or climate could make an environment unsuitable for habitation or reproduction. Another possibility, a disease eradicates the members of a species. That said, we can not rule out human activities as a possible proximate cause in the ivory-billed woodpeckers disappearance. If this is the case, environmental degradation would likely have been a driving force.


The destruction and logging of America’s forests could have played an role in shrinking populations of the ivory-billed woodpecker. The ivory-billed woodpecker’s are known to inhabit forests close to water. The trees of wetlands are usually where they make their nests.

Wetlands are environments where water inundates land either seasonally or year-round. Wetlands exist on almost every landmass on Earth, and are characterized by the specialized type of vegetation that grows in wet soil. There are multiple kinds of wetlands: coastal wetlands exist along coasts and are tolerant of saltwater. inland or non-tidal, on the other hand, interact with freshwater rivers or streams.

Wetlands are hailed as nurseries for wildlife because of the vast amount of wildlife that are supported within them. Protecting wetland biodiversity will effectively help preserve unique species of plants, animals and microorganisms. Proper management of these ecological systems will greatly enhance the odds of salvaging other types of organisms and protect the ecological services that they provide.

Cowspiracy Facts: Wildlife

two tucans in managed environment

The Cowspiracy film draws a cogent connection between animal agriculture and our climate change crisis. The film uses evidence-based research to support its claims about human activity across sectors, including how much land is being used and how humanity interacts with Earth’s animal populations and plant populations.

Cowspiracy’s references can be found on its official website under the “Facts” section. References for wildlife information include the The United States Bureau of Land Management, Predator Defense and a few individual opinion pieces. Most notably, a paper by author Vaclav Smil (2011), entitled “Harvesting the Biosphere: The Human Impact”. This document posits that human activities, primarily deforestation and ecosystem conversion, have demonstrably changed Earth’s biomass (both in its phytomass and its zoomass). For thousands of years, humans have used agriculture to help produce its resources. And because we’re omnivores, we have manipulated the plants around us as well as the use of certain animals in agriculture settings, such as cows, sheep, pigs, and poultry.

Benchmark Map of Forest Carbon Stocks In Tropical Regions Across Three Continents

The industrialization of agriculture production greatly enhanced the ability to raise livestock and grow specific crops. The conjunction of these activities has contributed to alterations in tropical forests, lakes and coral reefs ecosystems. The planet’s biomass, especially its phytomass, has paid a toll for excessive human use, according to Vaclav Smil.

Smil refers to observational data collected from Benchmark map of forest carbon stocks in tropical regions across three continents, and light detection and ranging, LIDAR, to reveal the vertical structure of forests (NASA 2010) as evidence to suggest that the global index of phytomass has decreased as human energy use has increased. Furthermore, as the populations of humans and domesticated animals have climbed in the most developed nations, zoomass of wild terrestrial animals has fallen. Earth’s total biomass then, is disproportionately made up of humans and domesticated animals relative to population sizes which preceded industrialization.

Bureau of Land Management and Predator Defense

Both the Bureau of Land Management and Predator Defense sources mention on Cowspiracy’s “Facts” page are short reads which share a common thread: the United States has authorized the killing of wild fauna. The Bureau of Land Management states that killing wildlife populations is aimed at reducing “overall herd growth rates”. The Wildlife Services on the other hand kills fauna to protect agriculture crops on both private and public lands. These methods go beyond wildlife management. Unfortunately, techniques that involve forcibly eliminating fauna further narrows the populations of animals that make up Earth’s total biomass, thereupon degrading biodiversity in favor of a limited selection of species.

Ecological Population Growth

Chicago park lake

In ecology, a population is a group of individual organisms belonging to the same single species which inhabit a specific area. The chimpanzees of Uganda’s Congo River are a population. So are the chimpanzees of western Tanzania. Though both of these groups belong to the same species, they should be considered separate populations because they do not inhabit the same specific area.

When surveying the populations of an ecosystem, researchers may be motivated to answer questions such as: what is the average population size? How does the average population size change over time?

To understand how population sizes vary through time, four relevant factors should be kept in mind: 1) the birth rate of the individual organisms, 2) their death rates 3) the introduction of nonnative individuals that have migrated from a separate population, 4) the removal of individuals that migrate out of the population being observed. Using these four measures provides insight into the rate of change within a population.

Populations may have a steady rate of growth, grow exponentially or even grow exponentially up until a certain point. A population’s growth may slow, or be halted completely by environmental factors, such as the presence of predator species or the lack of resources necessary for survival.

Cowspiracy Facts

cow wi
dairy cow

The 2014 documentary Cowspiracy illuminates the connection between the global climate crisis and modern farming techniques. The hour and a half film follows an environmentalist, Kip Anderson, on his search for answers regarding the most pressing environmental issues. His research leads him to stumble upon a scientific consensus: the use of animals in agriculture is among the leading factors that influence environmental degradation, including ocean dead zones, rapid species extinctions, habitat loss, Amazon rainforest destruction, water overconsumption and land misuse.

However, Anderson grows frustrated as he discovers that some environmental organizations and other conservationists (Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, Rainforest Action Network, and Oceana) refuse to be truthful about the role of animal agriculture in climate change.

The Silence of Environmentalists

Greenhouse gases such as methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide contribute to global warming. Each of these natural gases are heavily produced in industrial factory farming practices, where forests are cleared, thereby robbing landscapes of not only their carbon sequestering potential, but also of innumerable wildlife species. Fossil fuel emissions come from fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, from eccentric fermentation in ruminants and from manure management.

Bruce Hamilton: Sierra Club

Bruce Hamilton of the Sierra Club describes the present rate of greenhouse gas proliferation as exceeding levels ever before seen or estimated. This is hardly news. However, during his terse interview, Bruce Hamilton declared that other sources of methane and carbon dioxide should be prioritized above agriculture farming. Is Hamilton suggesting that some other economic sector has greater overall emissions than agriculture does? Doe he know agriculture’s impact estimates should include transport and energy generation? The Sierra Club is an organization that partly focuses promoting sustainable energy and limiting global warming. As the Deputy Executive Director of the Sierra Club, Bruce Hamilton should know.

Ann Notthoff: Natural Resources Defense Counsil

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Ann Notthoff says that energy production and transportation are the major sources of environmental degradation. The woman then laughs when pressed about livestock’s contribution. She jokingly says, “that’s cow farts… I think that’s what that is”.

Chad Nelson: Surfrider

Dr. Chad Nelson of Surfrider notes that heavy metals from automated vehicles and herbicides and pesticides as sources of ocean pollution. When Kip Anderson questions Dr. Nelson about the influence of animal agriculture on oceanic pollution, Nelson simply remarks that California’s research teams do not see much evidence of it. A pattern is made apparent for the Cowspiracy audience. Environmental organizations do not wish to point the finger directly at factory farming.

The Cost of Speaking Up

In some cases, speaking out against factory farming or animal agriculture has cost activists their lives. The film mentions the tragic assassination of Sister Dorothy Stang, an American nun who was murdered in 2005 for her activism against cattle ranching. According to the film, more than 1,100 environmental campaigners were killed over a 20 year period in Brazil for animal activism. Journalist Will Potter believes that environmentalists are considered terrorists by the FBI. Will Anderson, the founder of Greenpeace Alaska, believes that most environmental institutions are failing us by neglecting to mention the role of human diets and farming practices in climate change.

Activism comes with a cost. In some cases, the cost is lost revenue or a reputation blow. The fact is, agriculture corporations are powerfully influential due to the amount of profit that they reap and the jobs that they supply. As staples in global economies, these organizations are capable of preventing activists from being publicly critical. Speaking up could result in funding loss, loss of business, alienation or worse.

What Is Biodiversity?

A group of same species fish

Biodiversity (biological diversity) research is an emerging field of study aimed at assessing the variance of Earth’s biomass. Measurements of biodiversity take place at three distinct levels: genes, species and ecosystems. Biodiversity encompasses the continually evolving and interconnected complexities between organisms and their environment.


As organisms evolve over time, their genetics change to fit their survival needs and lifestyles. Genes are the molecular units that determine the proteins and growth functions of an organism’s cells. If an organism survives long enough and reproduces, then some of its genetic material can be passed on to its offspring.


Organisms that have the most genetic material in common and that can interbreed are considered to be of the same species. A species is a ranking class that ecologists use to group like organisms.

Ecologists are most often interested in species richness (the number of different species in an area), and species abundance (the number of individuals per species in an area), when measuring a region’s biodiversity. Researchers also use population distributions between different species to assess diversity in an area.


Ecosystems are characterized by the interactions between physical qualities and the life embedded in those conditions. Ecosystem diversity takes into consideration the range of different types of habitats that belong to a single area. If one region contains a tropical habitat and grasslands, then it would be more diverse than a region that merely contains freshwater habitats.

Species tend to occupy regions that fit the conditions necessary for their survival. In other words, the environment that a species can inhabit is determined by the conditions of the environment, both biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living). Abiotic conditions include weather and the availability of water, while abiotic factors could be the presence of predators or competition from other organisms for resources.

Are Penguins Affected by Climate Change

Researchers have reasoned that sea-ice loss and glacial calving have been accelerated do to anthropogenic climate change. As a result, survival rates for certain species have declined.

Species like the emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri), which occupy icy territories, have had their habitats threatened by changing climatological conditions. A study, conducted by Global Change Biology and the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) asserts that emperor penguins should receive extra defense under the Endangered Species Act because their environments are undergoing shifts that directly affect their survival.

NOAAClimate.gov visual representation of Antarctica

Research Method and Design

The study simulates the effects that extreme climate events have on penguin populations. The evidence for the modeled simulations is derived from observational data captured by satellite records.

Emperor penguins live on Antarctica’s coastlines, which are especially sensitive to temperature changes. Mature emperor penguins rely on sea ice shelves for rest, as a refuge from aquatic predators, and as breeding grounds. Emperor penguins also require sufficient amounts of sea ice to raise their young. Declines in sea ice may be the reason that emperor penguins have been disappearing in various regions of Antarctica.

Conclusion Drawing

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, emperor penguin populations were subjected to breakages in sea ice that occurred before young chicks were prepared to swim. This unfortunately caused young emperor penguins to drown in both Halley Bay and Cape Crozier. Research on greenhouse gas emissions suggests that shrinkage in icy environments is expected to increase in the future. Penguin communities will continue to suffer as a result. The close relationship between emperor penguins and their environments is a quintessential example of how species are adversely impacted by a heating planet.


laboratory microscope

Environmental DNA (EDNA) is defined as genetic material that has been gathered from an environment rather than directly from an organism. DNA is a molecular structure that exists in an organism’s cells. EDNA is DNA that has been expelled from organism and left in behind in soils, water, sediments and in the air. All living organisms leave traces of their genetic material in environments that its physically been in; that DNA can give researchers information about a species’ whereabouts (past and present). EDNA can be released into an environment through the body fluids, fecal matter, scales and skin of the organism.

Environmental DNA Sampling

Ecological sampling is an assessment of how species are distributed and how dense the populations are within a community of organisms. Sampling requires the use of several methods to record the presence of different organisms. Some methods merely consist of photographing species, other methods involve setting traps to capture and identify them so that they can be studied up close.

Sampling with environmental deoxyribonucleic acid (EDNA) is a relatively new strategy for identifying the species in a given region. EDNA makes use of readily available genetic material deposited in a habitat and left behind by the organism that it came from. That genetic material can then be tested and referenced to other cataloged samples.

How Does DNA Degrade

Once EDNA has been released into an environment, it can become less detectable depending on the conditions of the region. For example, cold weather conditions sometimes preserve a DNA sample over long periods of time because freezing prevents samples from moving through the system. Alternatively, UV radiation or seawater acidity could cause the genetic sample to degrade. For this reason, DNA samples extracted from water tend to only last a few days. Therefore, like any other sampling technique, EDNA is time sensitive. Thanks to advances in molecular biology, retrieving information from genetic signatures and matching them to the appropriate species in labs is quickly becoming a new frontier for understanding species distributions across ecosystems.

Advantages of Environmental DNA

Acquiring a genetic signature from an organism (or a group of organisms) can can tell sampling teams a lot about the organism, including where it has been, what its diet consists of and what other organisms it may have interacted with. EDNA is more cost effective than trapping and capturing organisms because EDNA is readily available upon discovery, saving researchers the cost of traps and time for assembly and troubleshooting. Using EDNA also grants researchers a better opportunity to detect species that have low population densities.

What’s more, the EDNA technique is less disruptive to the lives of organisms in the region being sampled. When ecologists attempt to study species by capturing them or observing them directly, they often risk introducing non-native species or disease into an environment, even with the use of sterilized materials. In other cases, sampling teams could disrupt the targeted ecosystem in some unforeseen way. Of all sampling methodologies, EDNA is the least disruptive to ecological communities. Though measuring biodiversity is an essential process for conservation and research, preserving that biodiversity is likewise crucial.

Ecological Sampling Is Time Sensitive

three birds on tree branch
plants on grid

Species richness is the total number of species in an ecological community. Determining an estimate for species diversity accounts for the number of species present in a region, species concentration and species distribution. However, there are usually biases that are involved biological diversity assessments, which could skew data. One surveying bias comes from species detectability. Species can only be measured if they are detectable, which means that surveys may detect megafauna or large vertebrates much more than it insect species. Not all species are available in the same times of day, during the same seasons or in the same distributions either, which means that researchers have limited windows of time for surveying an ecological community.

Species Richness and Time

In order to maximize species richness, sampling teams have to take measurements when the most species are detectable. Variables include season, weather conditions, time of day, the presence of other species and predators. Some species (especially plants) are more abundant in specific seasons, which gives ecologist a limited window of time to measure those populations. Therefore, sampling during all four seasons, will offer more accurate data than simply sampling during one or two. Sampling populations at differential time windows widens the possibility of encountering novel organisms or novel distributions of previously observed organisms.

The most trustworthy samples are taken over extended periods of time. Samples that taken at varying times tend to offer more data about an community of organisms. Too few samples can give researchers an inaccurate representation of which organisms are present in a region, how they are distributed or how dense their populations are. Temporal variance in data is significant because it allows ecologists to draw inferences about how ecological communities change through time. Over time, representation, representations in a community’s species richness, species distribution and general behavior can change.