Introduction To Ecology

Develop your understanding of environmental sustainability. Studying ecology underpins many career paths, from horticulture and agriculture to wildlife and environmental management.

Course CodeBEN101
Fee CodeS1
Duration (approx)100 hours
QualificationStatement of Attainment

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Develop your understanding of the world around us with this Introduction to Ecology course

Take the first step towards understanding about life processes and how their energy creates movement through living communities whilst distributing biodiversity throughout the ecosystem in the context of the environment.

  • Plants and animals, small and large are affected by each other and their environment.
  • The environment is affected by the plants and animals that inhabit it.
  • When you understand these interrelationships; you are a much better land manager

Ecology is the study of the relationship between plants and animals and their physical and biological environment. It plays an important role in conservation, wetland and natural resource management, forestry, agriculture and fisheries, as well as climatological, human and urban interactions in today’s changing world.

This course is very valuable if you are planning to (or already) work in:
  • environmental management 
  • conservation 
  • research
  • education
  • horticulture 
  • agriculture
  • and more...

Lesson Structure

There are 7 lessons in this course:

  1. Ecosystems and Populations
    • Ecology
    • Types of Ecology: Behavioural Ecology, Population Ecology, Community Ecology and Ecosystem Ecology
    • Biomes
    • Ecosystems (Energy and Nutrients)
    • The Food Web: Grazing Web, Detrital Web, Energy Flow and Imbalances
    • Populations: Diversity, Habitat, Niche, and Growth Rates
    • Interactions in the Community: Competition, Predation, Co-evolution, Succession and Climax Communities
  2. The Development of Life
    • Lifespan: Average Lifespan, Evolutionary Considerations on Lifespan and Theories on the Limits of Lifespan
    • Evolution: Introduction, What Evolution Means, Evidence of Organic Evolution, The Anatomical Argument, The Physiological Argument, The Paleontological Argument, The Embryological Argument, Steps in Organic Evolution, Multicellular Organisms, The Evolution of Sex, Differentiation and Integration
    • The origin of Vertebrates: The Emergence of Man, Factors in Organic Evolution, Germ Cells and Variations, Natural Selection, Population Genetics, The Synthetic Theory, Speciation, Genetic Drift, Trans-specific Evolution, Present Day Evolutionary Debate, Human Evolution and Evolutionary Patterns
  3. Animals, Parasites and Endangered Species
    • Animals in the Ecosystem: Animals in the Human Community
    • Animals
    • Phylum and Classes of the Animal Kingdom: Vertebrates with Backbones, Vertebrates without Backbones, Protozoa, Origins and Relationships, Body Organisation, The Gut, Symmetry, Protosomia, Coelom and Deuterostomia
    • Summary of Phyla: The Parazoa, The Mesozoa, The Radiata, Phylum Coelenterata and Phylum Ctenophora
    • The Acoelomate Bilateria: Phylum Platyhelminthes, Phylum Nemertina
    • The Pseudocoelomates: Phylum Nematoda, Phylum Gastrotricha, Phylum Nematomorpha, Phylum Acanthocephala, Phylum Kinorhyncha, Phylum Rotifera, Phylum Priapulida, Phylum Entoprocta and Phylum Lucifera
    • Eucoelomates (The Tentaculata): Phylum Phoronida, Phylum Ectoprocta and Phylum Brachiopoda
    • Eucoelomates (The Trochozoa): Phylum Annelida, Phylum Sipuncula, Phylum Mollusca, Phylum Arthropoda
    • Eucoelomates (The Deuterostomia): Phylum Chaetognatha, Phylum Echinodermata, Phylum Hemichordata and Phylum Chordata
    • Parasites: Human Parasites and Parasitic Plants
    • Endangered Species: The Causes of Extinction and Efforts for Preservation
    • Case Study (Threatened Animal Species in Queensland, Australia): Birds, Mammals, Fish, Frogs, Butterflies and Reptiles
  4. Fungi, Tundra, Rainforests and Marshlands
    • Fungi: Introduction, Types of Fungi, The Structure of Fungi, The Reproduction of Fungi, The Physiology of Fungus, Poisoning by Fungi, The Ecology of Fungus, The Uses of Fungi, The Classification of Fungi (Oomycota, Zygomycota, Ascomycota)
    • Tundra: Introduction, The Climate and Land Formation, Plant Life on the Tundra
    • Rainforests: The Ecology, The Vegetation, Creatures of the Rainforest, The Canopy, The Under-storey, The Forest Floor and Clearing the Rainforest
    • Marshland: Introduction, Freshwater Marshes and Saltwater Marshes
  5. Mountains, Rivers and Deserts
    • Mountains: The Formation of Mountains, The Importance of Mountains, Volcanoes and Erosion
    • Rivers: The Formation of Rivers, Dams (Ponds), River Catchments, Urban Catchments, How can we clean up Stormwater
    • Reducing Pollutants
    • Sedimentation
    • Nutrients
    • Other Toxicants
    • Damming of Rivers
    • Deserts: Wind Systems, Land Formation, Plant Adaptations to the Desert, Animal Adaptations to the Desert, Human Impacts on Deserts, The Spreading Deserts
  6. Shallow Waters
    • Estuaries
    • Major Natural Processes Occurring in Coastal Environments: Climatological, Physical, Biological and Mixing Processes; Factors Influencing Estuaries; The Estuary as a Nursery; Estuaries and People
    • Rocky Shores: Threats to Rocky Shores and What Individuals Can Do
    • Sandy Shores: Threats to the Sandy Shore
    • Coral Reefs: Corals, The Composition of Coral Reefs
    • Types of Coral Reefs: Fringing Reefs, Barrier Reefs and Atolls
    • The Origin of Coral Reefs: Flora and Fauna on Atolls; Petroleum
  7. Ecological Problems
    • The Greenhouse Effect
    • Global Warming: Difference Between Greenhouse Effect and Global Warming, Climate Change, A Growing Awareness, Carbon Dioxide
    • International Efforts to Combat Climate Change: IPCC, UNFCCC, Kyoto Protocol, COP15 and The World Watch Institute
    • The Actual and Potential Effects: Global Temperature Rise, Sea Level Rise, Impacts on Weather Systems
    • Greenhouse Gases (GHG): Water Vapour, Methane, Nitrous Oxide and Fluorocarbons
    • Ozone: The Ozone Layer, The Causes of Ozone Depletion, Aerosols, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning, Foam and Phasing out CFCs
    • The Effects of Ozone Depletion: Skin Cancers, Immune System Response, Impacts on Crops and Forests and Impacts on Marine Life
    • Poisons: Poisons in the Home and Other Household Poisons
    • Poisons on the Farm: Pesticides, Characteristics of Pesticides and Summary of Pesticides
    • Environmental and Health Impacts of Pesticides: Soil, Water Air Vegetation, Wildlife, Effects of Chemicals on Humans and Animals, Acute Poisoning, Chronic Poisoning and Different Types of Effects
    • Waste Material: Rubbish Dumps or Tips, Recycling, Plastics, Gas from Landfills and Domestic Waste

Each lesson culminates in an assignment which is submitted to the school, marked by the school's tutors and returned to you with any relevant suggestions, comments, and if necessary, extra reading.


  • To identify the components of an ecosystem and how they interact.
  • Discuss the basis of the Theory of Evolution and those elements of science which influenced the theory.
  • To discuss the existence of animals in the ecosystem.
  • To discuss the presence of plant life in a range of ecological situations
  • To discuss the ecological features of mountains, rivers and deserts.
  • To discuss the ecological features of shallow water regions and coral seas.
  • To discuss the ecological implications of human activities on the environment.

What You Will Do

  • Observe an ecosystem in your local area. Identify the inhabitants of the ecosystem and their location in the food web of that system.
  • Compare the similarities and differences between the detrital web and the grazing web
  • Discuss what scientific discoveries the Theory of Evolution, both past and present, is based on.
  • List and explain the four arguments of evolution.
  • Define Natural Selection.
  • Discuss how genetics are related to evolution.
  • Go to an ecological environment (as natural and un-human interfered as possible) and observe the plants and relationships that exist.
  • Visit a local stream or river. Observe the condition of the stream, particularly the presence of indigenous vegetation and its affect on stream bank condition. Also look for evidence of human activity on the condition of the stream or river
  • Discuss, in your own words, the theories which have been advanced in the past regarding the formation of coral reefs.



The word “ecosystem” was coined by Sir Arthur George Tansley in 1935. He used the word to stress the concept of each habitat as an integrated whole. A system is a collection of interdependent parts that function as a unit and involve inputs and outputs.

The major parts of an ecosystem are:

  • Producers - Green plants
  • Consumers - Herbivores and carnivores
  • Decomposers - Fungi and bacteria
  • Abiotic - Non living components, including dead organic matter and soil and water nutrients.

There are elements that need to be put into the ecosystem in order for it to work. The ecosystem also contributes to the natural environment overall. Inputs and outputs of an ecosystem include:


  • Solar energy
  • Water
  • Oxygen
  • Carbon dioxide
  • Nitrogen
  • Other elements and compounds


  • Heat from respiration
  • Water
  • Oxygen
  • Carbon Dioxide


Behavioural Ecology

Behavioural ecology looks at how behaviour effects the survival, reproduction and growth of a species. The way individuals of a species behave can affect the survival of a population. Zoologist/Ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen (1963) addressed the issue of “why” animals behave in certain ways by asking four questions:

  • Function – How do prey and patch choice contribute to the survival of an animal and its offspring?
  • Causation – What causes an animal to select a particular site? This can include abundance of prey, vegetation cover and the activity of other animals in the area (competition).
  • Development – How does the genetic disposition of the animal affect its behaviour?
  • Evolutionary History (Phylogeny) – How did a particular animal adapt to occupy a particular ecological niche (position of a species within its ecosystem)?

An example of behavioural ecology would be when certain species group together in herds, they lessen their individual chance of predation. Ecologists would address the four aspects above to understand why the species behaved in this way.


Population Ecology

Populations are groups of individuals of the same species, all of which can interbreed occupying a defined area. Population ecology examines dynamics such as how these populations grow, interact and how they are limited by the resources around them by competition and by predation. Population ecology is central in the role of wildlife managers and examines such factors as birth rate (fecundity), death rate (mortality), age structure and immigration of new individuals into the population (recruitment).


Community Ecology

Community ecology examines how different species interact with each other and their environment within a specific geographic area (or community). It looks at why some environments support many species where others don’t.

Community ecology takes factors such as demography, distribution, abundance and interactions between populations into consideration. The interactions between different species are called interspecific interactions. An example of an interspecific interaction might be a Barn Owl preying upon a field vole living in the same community.


Ecosystem Ecology

Ecosystem ecology looks at how energy and nutrients flow through communities and the effects that energy and nutrients have on those communities. It looks at trophic (feeding) levels and how solar energy flows from plants to herbivores, carnivores and detrivores.

Studying ecology with ACS Distance Education will be a journey of exploration. You will (or course) read and research factual information; but you will also be interacting with academics and professionals who have studied and worked in jobs where ecology has been applied in very practical ways.

The study experience can involve observing and analyzing ecosystems that you are interested in. The course is flexible in that way. It involves set tasks and assignments in each lesson; but the tasks you are given can focus on the physical locations that you want, or need to study. For someone living in a wilderness area, study may involve field trips to locations in the wilderness. For someone living in the suburbs it may involve looking closely at the ecosystem in a backyard, streetscape or park. 

  • Study where you want (any country, even while you are travelling)
  • Study when you want (whatever days or times you have available: even change how much time you study from week to week)
  • Study at your own pace (commonly a 6 to 12 month course -but faster if you wish)
  • Unlimited support -our academics work out of both Australia and the UK, and can be contacted for support from either, 5 days a week.

Some students may have a clear reason for studying this course, before they even begin; while others may simply be interested in the subject, and following a passion for better understanding the environment, and improving their prospects for becoming more involved with environmental management after graduating.
You might do any of the following:

  • Keep learning - This is a good starting point for further studies here or anywhere else. We have lots more relevant courses; and you can use this as a credit toward a longer study program if you want. 
  • Seek Employment/ Develop a Career - We offer free advice to graduates. Some may find a job in some area of land or environmental management, where their learning and skills development can continue. Others may get a start through volunteer work, during or after studies.
  • Apply what you learnt in a job you already have.

Take advantage of the free Counselling Service we offer.
Contact one of our academic staff.
Learn from our experience.

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Dr Robert Browne

Zoologist, Environmental Scientist and Sustainability, science based consultancy with biotechnology corporations. Work focused on conservation and sustainability. Robert has published work in the fields of nutrition, pathology, larval growth and develop
Bob James

Horticulturalist, Agriculturalist, Environmental consultant, Businessman and Professional Writer. Over 40 years in industry, Bob has held a wide variety of senior positions in both government and private enterprise. Bob has a Dip. Animal Husb, B.App.Sc.,
Barbara Seguel

Teacher and Researcher, Marine Scientist, Tourism and Outdoor recreation guide, Health and Safety Coordinator & Production Manager for Fisheries, National Park Staff/Farmer, Laboratory technical aide, Zoo, Wildlife and Marine Park assistant. Barbara has w
John Mason

Parks Manager, Nurseryman, Landscape Designer, Garden Writer and Consultant. Over 40 years experience; working in Victoria, Queensland and the UK. He is one of the most widely published garden writers in the world.