True confession: When I first heard the term "ecotone" I thought it was a fabulous new skin care product to put around my eyes to help with those pesky lines. I was wrong. Ecotone has to do with the edges of my landscape--not the edges of my eyes. And as someone who is concerned about preserving and protecting the environment you should know about this important ecological phenomenon.
What the heck is ecotone?
Ecotone is also known as the "edge effect." Simply stated, it's a region of transition between two biological communities. For example, the edge between a forest and grassland is an ecotone, and so is marshland between a river and riverbank. A clearing in a forest is an ecotone, as is an estuary between a fresh water body and saltwater.
Let's think about some different scenarios to help wrap our minds around this.
Here's one scenario:
You own one of a number of houses that sits on the perimeter of a neighborhood park. The park is wooded and generously sized--about three acres. The ecotone of that park is the perimeter where the houses are located. You live in the house with your partner, your children and a dog--all of whom use the park for recreation and therefore impact the park. All of your neighbors also affect the park. For example, a neighbor might have run-off from lawn fertilizer, or another neighbor might have a plant that spreads seeds to the park (think: dandelions).
Now imagine that the park is smaller--more like one acre. Even though the park is smaller, the area that you and your neighbors occupy is the same because the houses and yards haven't shrunk. In other words, the ecotone is the same size even though the park is smaller. (Thanks to Brooke Darmanin's YouTube video for schooling me on this scenario.)
The first scenario--with the larger park--is the best in terms of biodiversity because the park is larger. The larger the habitat the smaller the effect the ecotone has on that habitat.
Let's consider another scenario:
Picture a path cutting through a forest--the kind of place you love to take your dog for a walk. It's a sunny day, but the forest's trees cast shadows on the path. You hear birds fluttering and chirping above you. A chipmunk scurries in front of your dog on the path. You smell the deep earthy, mossy smells of the forest. Sounds nice, right?
Yes, it is nice, but it isn't an optimal habitat. It doesn't have wildflowers growing along the edge of the path which butterflies and pollinators enjoy. There isn't an open glade so that sun can penetrate the woods to encourage growth. There aren't any shrubs along the edge either which small woodland creatures use for their homes. These wildflowers and shrubs are a part of the woodland's ecotone. Because there isn't an ecotone around the forest its biodiversity is limited. (Thanks to WoodlandsTV for schooling me on this habitat.)
OK, I get it, but why is it important that I know about ecotone?
Good question. Here are 5 reasons:
1. Smaller ecotone means increased nest predation--that's when one critter preys on the nests of another critter.
2. Ecotone helps to curb harmful alien species. You're probably familiar with the harmful affects of invasive species. If you aren't, check out this post.
3. Ecotone encourages forest fragmentation--the chopping up of forests into smaller pieces. This isn't good because it tears apart natural habitats.
4. Ecotone is an indicator of global change--it's the figurative canary in the coal mine. Decreased ecotone means that natural habitats are becoming smaller.
5. As mentioned above, ecotone encourages biodiversity--you know, that whole circle of life thing.
You are a land manager
Whether you own a piece of property or you simply enjoy various natural settings for hiking, biking or kayaking, you can play a positive roll in protecting the environment. The choices you make have real, tangible impact.
As a land owner, you can take steps to protect ecotone areas on your property by respecting native species that may be growing on the edge of your wooded lot. If you are thinking of a major landscaping project, work with a landscaper who is committed to best practices that protect diverse habitats. If you're putting a pool in your backyard, choose its location carefully to be sure that you're not clearing important habitat in order to accommodate it.
As a community member you can get involved with a land trust and other land management organization that works to protect diverse habitats.
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photo of forest via Shutterstock