A variety of habitats: Millers Dale from the Limestone Way, Priestcliffe (Dave Purchase)

Wildlife and Habitats

Habitats are the places where plants and animals live. Habitats are defined by their physical environments and by the plant and animal species that live within them – their wildlife communities. 

Ecology is the study of the relationships between organisms (including humans) living as individuals, communities or populations, and their physical environment. These relationships are often referred to as ‘the ecology’ of a particular geographical area or environment, although an alternative, more common scientific term is ecosystem. This means all the organisms and the physical environment with which they interact, linked together through nutrient cycles and energy flows. These ecosystem processes transfer energy and materials within the system and between the system and its environment.

These processes take place at a wide range of scales, from the individual cell to complete biomes. (A biome is a large collection of plant and animal life occupying a major habitat, such as a rainforest, a desert or an ocean.) Therefore, the correct scale of habitat depends on the the habitat and species you are looking at. Habitats contain habitats contain habitats. There are no hard borders between them. To divide the world into ecological zones or habitats at any scale is difficult, because of the small-scale variations that exist everywhere  and because of the gradual changeover from one habitat to the other, particularly beyond the scale of the individual. (Even then, no individual plant or animal can exist completely independently of and sealed off from its surroundings. All boundaries are porous with matter and energy going both ways.) The boundaries of habitats must therefore be drawn arbitrarily and their characterization and classification made according to the average or predominant conditions. This becomes clearer when we explore the categorisation and classification schemes for habitats that have been developed.

Environment is a commonly used term with a variety of meanings, generally referring to the surroundings of a particular individual, group or community. In the context of this site, it can be taken to refer to either:

  • the natural environment, that is, all living and non-living things occurring naturally in a particular area or situation; or
  • the biophysical environment, that is, the physical and biological factors along with their chemical interactions that affect an organism or a group of organisms in a particular area or situation

Given that there is a vital interdependence between the physical conditions of any given habitat and the range, variety and abundance of the plant and animal species within that habitat, it follows that there is a vast range of different habitats, not only around the world but within any particular geographical area. Also, habitats change as the world changes, as physical conditions such as climate change and as plant and animal communities thrive or decline and as species evolve or become extinct.

Ecological succession is the process of change in the species structure of a habitat or an ecological community over time. The time scale can be years, decades, centuries or millenia. Habitats are complex and in multiple processes of continuous change. This is natural. 

However, geological history shows us that there have been at least five mass extinctions of life on Earth, due to various natural causes, during which multitudes of species disappeared and following which multitudes of new species evolved, establishing new habitats to fit the changed physical environments. Scientific evidence is now overwhelming that we are in the process of a sixth mass extinction event, with unusually rapid rates of species extinctions due to losses of habitats and climate change, caused by the unprecedented scale and harmful effects of human activities. 

While our attention, such as it is, has tended to be on saving particular species (usually larger mammalian and bird species), it has become increasingly clear that protecting and restoring habitats will be key to achieving success in protecting species and the future. Without the right habitats there will not be the wildlife that needs those habitats in order to survive and flourish.