7 junio, 2024

Autoecology: concept, what it studies, examples

The autoecology It is the branch of ecology that deals with the study of individual species in their adaptation to the environment. Thus, autoecology takes a particular species with the purpose of establishing all the relationships that it establishes in its habitat.

For this, autoecology is helped by all the other sciences that provide it with information about said species and about the environment in which it lives. Therefore, in its studies, autoecology disaggregates the individual under study into its anatomical and functional features.

Then, it reduces the complexity of environmental factors to its main factors, in terms of light, temperature, precipitation, water, soil, and others. To finally establish the correlations between the individual’s form and function traits with the factors that he has to face in his habitat.

In this way, it establishes what are the adaptations that have allowed that species to survive in that specific environment. Therefore, autoecology differs from the other branch of ecology called synecology, due to the hierarchical level at which it studies the ecosystem.

Synecology studies the set of species (communities) and the food webs they establish, while autoecology studies a particular species facing its environment.


What does autoecology study?

Autoecology has as its object of study a particular species, in order to establish how it adapts to its environment to survive. In practice, autoecological studies take into account a particular population or even one or a few individuals of a species.

The final objective of autoecology is to establish the correspondence that exists between the characteristics of the species and those of the environment where it lives.

Morphology and physiology

Ecology and therefore autoecology is an integrative science (it takes into account information from many other sources). In such a way that autoecology starts from the knowledge of the form (morphology) and functioning (physiology) of a species.

For this, it collects existing information about its anatomy and internal functioning (physiology), and then relates this information to environmental factors.


Autoecology, by taking into account the environment where a given species develops, collects or generates all possible information, and then breaks it down into its component factors.

That is, the amplitude of variation of temperatures, light, precipitation, soil, bodies of water, among others. This will vary depending on the type of species being studied and whether it inhabits a terrestrial or aquatic ecosystem.


Finally, autoecology tries to establish the relationship between the form and functions of the species under study and the environment where it lives. To do this, it establishes relationships between the limitations of that environment and the form and function of the species.

It starts from the principle that most of the morphological traits or internal functions of the species have been modeled by environmental factors. This has been possible thanks to natural selection, which encourages only individuals with useful characters to face the environment to reproduce.

In this way, it is about identifying which adaptations the species has developed to survive in those specific conditions. Understanding by adaptation a modification inherited from parents to children that allows that species to respond better to a certain environmental factor.

An example of adaptation might be a body with a thicker layer of fat to withstand a colder environment.

The result of the autoecological study is the knowledge of the set of adaptations of the species and its relationship with the environmental factors of its habitat. Likewise, the establishment of the amplitude of variation of the environmental conditions that define the habitat of the species.

Life cycle and seasonal variation of the environment

A particularly relevant aspect in autoecological studies is to define the correlation between the life cycle and environmental variations. This is because throughout the year there are more or less significant variations in the environment, more marked where there is defined seasonality.

For example, in temperate zones where there are four seasons in the year or in tropical zones with two seasons. The life cycle of the species, including its feeding, mating and other habits, adapts to these cyclical variations of the environment throughout the year.

Thus, there are animals like the bear that hibernate in winter, or trees that lose their leaves and go into rest. For their part, other animals change the color of their fur in summer (dark fur) and in winter (white fur) to go unnoticed.

Differences between autoecology and synecology

An ecosystem is made up of living beings that inhabit a defined area, the physical conditions of that area, and the multiple relationships that are established. Therefore, in a certain ecosystem numerous species of animals, plants and other living organisms coexist.

Each particular species is made up of several populations (groups of individuals of that particular species). Then, the set of populations of different species that interact in an area form a community.

Here relationships are established between individuals of the same species, between those of one species with those of another, and of all with the environment. Ecology as a science studies all this complex structure of actors and relationships.

However, in order to deepen the knowledge of ecosystems, ecology has specialized. One of these specialized branches is autoecology, which is responsible for studying each species in particular with respect to its environment.

The unit of study of autoecology is the population, while the object of study of synecology is one level higher, since it studies the community. This last term understood as the set of populations of different species interacting in a given environment.

Synecology describes the ecosystem as a whole, including quantitative data on number of species, density, and other parameters. Similarly, synecology emphasizes establishing the food webs that are generated in the ecosystem.

Finally, while autoecology focuses on a specific species, synecology focuses on the relationship between all species in the ecosystem.

Examples of study in autoecology

desert cacti

In deserts, the limiting factor is water, together with high temperatures, which is why most cacti species have adapted to these extreme dry conditions. They have done this by developing drastic anatomical and physiological changes.

Among some of these changes is the transformation of leaves into thorns, reducing the loss of water through transpiration, while the stems fulfill the photosynthetic function. In the same way, the stems become succulent with cells full of sticky substances (mucilages) to store water.

This is observed in species such as the saguaro (giant carnegiea) that grows in the Sonoran desert (USA and Mexico).


An extreme case of species adaptation to environmental conditions are the marine mammals of the cetacean group. Their ancestors were land mammals, but they adapted to living in the ocean and underwent drastic changes in their anatomy and function.

They transformed their legs into fins and their body took a hydrodynamic shape to swim better. In addition, although they maintain pulmonary respiration, they have developed a superior opening on their heads that allows them to better take in air when emerging.

Some examples are species such as the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) or the orca (orcinus orca).

Chestnut and beech groves in Spain

Various studies have been carried out on the autoecology of chestnut populations (castanea sativa) and beech forests (Fagus sylvatica) in different Spanish regions. In these studies it is established that landform conditions (physiography), soils, temperatures, humidity and other factors define the habitat of these species.

For example, it was determined that the Galician chestnut groves develop at 400 and 750 m altitude, with average rainfall around 1,300 mm. While the beech forests of Castilla y León have a higher rainfall range in their habitat, between 600 and 1,700 mm.

The fur in cold-zone animals

In their process of adapting to the changes that occur in the environment with the passing of the seasons, many animals vary their color. For example, the arctic hare (lepus arcticus) and the stoat (mustela erminea), in summer they have a somewhat shorter, chestnut-colored coat.

This allows them to better blend in or blend in with the grassland vegetation and soil, as well as withstand warm temperatures. However, when winter comes with snow covering everything and the temperature drops, their fur turns white and dense.


Blanco, A., Sánchez, O., Rubio, A., Elena, R., Gómez, V and Graña, D. (2000). Autoecology of the chestnut groves of Galicia (Spain). Invest. Agr.: Syst. Recur. For.
Calow, P. (Ed.) (1998). The encyclopedia of ecology and environmental management.
Daubenmire, R.E. (1988). Plant ecology: treatise on autoecology of plants. 3rd Ed. Editorial Limusa. Mexico.
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Odum, E.P. and Warrett, G.W. (2006). Fundamentals of ecology. Fifth edition. Thomson.
Purves, WK, Sadava, D., Orians, GH and Heller, HC (2001). Life. The science of biology.
Raven, P., Evert, RF and Eichhorn, SE (1999). Biology of plants.
Sánchez, O., Rubio, A., Blanco, A., Elena, R. and Gómez, V (2003). Parametric autoecology of beech forests in Castilla y León (Spain). Invest. Agr.: Syst. Recur. For.

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