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What is the Difference Between Ecology and Environmental Science?

By D. Jeffress
Updated May 21, 2024
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Ecology and environmental science are closely related disciplines, and familiarity with the principles of one is essential to fully understanding the other. The main difference between the two is that the latter is a more overarching field that incorporates many elements of Earth and life sciences to understand various natural processes. Ecology, on the other hand, is usually more focused on how organisms interact with each other and with their immediate surroundings. Both sciences provide very important information about nature and what people can do to better protect the planet and conserve resources.

An important difference between ecology and environmental science is the goal of research in each discipline. Unlike environmental scientists, ecologists tend to focus their research on very specific populations of living things, such as a certain type of grass or a group of fishes. Ecologists seek to understand how populations interact, reproduce, and thrive within an ecosystem. They concentrate mainly on immediate factors such as food preferences, predation, and sexual selection within a group. Through careful observation and historical research, they explain the developmental and evolutionary adaptations that influence a species.

Environmental scientists conduct laboratory and field studies to learn about a range of factors that influence an area. Like ecologists, they study living things and their behaviors in detail. In addition, they consider the impacts of climate, geological processes, temperature changes, and water cycles when investigating ecosystems. For example, an environmental scientist might research the impacts of an especially dry season on the growth of different species of plants in an area. He or she may then try to identify any negative resulting consequences on herbivorous animals in the region.

A strong educational background in the scientific method is necessary in both ecology and environmental science. Professionals in both fields conduct rigorous, ethical, highly controlled studies to ensure accurate results. They record their findings in detailed reports and create statistical analyses when applicable, so that their results can be reviewed and built upon by other scientists.

Understanding these disciplines is essential in formulating laws and policies regarding conservation. When governments and industries set new standards, they usually consult professionals with backgrounds in these fields to provide expert advice. Environmental scientists might be contracted to analyze pollution levels and other risk factors near an industrial plant. Ecologists are needed to determine the welfare of certain populations and suggest ways to better protect endangered species. By combining the information gathered by scientists in both disciplines, authorities can create effective policies and educational resources for people to follow.

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Discussion Comments
By anon155883 — On Feb 24, 2011

At the Uni I am attending (in Australia), I am studying a major in Env Sci, with a minor in Ecology. Their really aren't many subject differences between the two disciplines, in fact, I was having a hard time differentiating between the the two. The above article has helped me clarify though, that Env Sci is broader, while Ecology is focusing on smaller communities of biota. Thsnks Wise Geek.

By anon152267 — On Feb 13, 2011

I am currently an Environmental Science major with minors in Biology and Geology. If you are seeking to study Ecology, then you will major in Biology with an Ecology concentration. If you seek to study Environmental Science, you will have more math/statistics classes, Geology classes, and Chemistry (though they are about the same number for each) because you will need Geochemistry and Biogeochemistry. My program has many classes in Biology and Geology, hence the reason I got the two minors by only picking up a couple more classes in each.

Good Luck, David

By GiraffeEars — On Oct 10, 2010

Is environmental science the same as environmentalism? It seems like environmental science is a science created during the environmental movement.

By FrameMaker — On Oct 10, 2010

@ fiorite- Environmental science studies multiple disciplines and creates one interdisciplinary science. Environmental scientists study how people interact with their environment. Environmental science incorporates elements from the natural sciences, the logical sciences, and humanities. An environmental scientist will study how ethics, philosophy, economics, and psychology play into the interactions between humans, the planet, and other species.

Ecology is only a narrow field of biology, a subfield of biology that is a part of environmental science. Ecology studies the biological interactions between species and the nonliving resources in their environment. An ecologist usually focuses on ecosystem interactions. Good luck with your decision.

By Fiorite — On Oct 10, 2010

I am into the environment and considering an environmental science degree, but I am not quite sure what the difference is between environmental science and ecology. Can someone help me define these degrees so I can decide which I may be more interested in pursuing? Thanks!

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