Do you know how to read landscape ecology?
If not, then you’re missing one of the most important information sources for making fast & accurate predictions outdoors.
And if you do, then you’re probably always looking to increase your knowledge because you know how powerful it is.
One of the biggest blindspots I notice in most wildlife trackers & naturalists is that they don’t know anything about ecology.
Most nature geeks have one or two areas of passion like plants or birds.
But I want to let you in on a little secret…
If you can understand how plants, birds, trees & all the animals fit into the overall landscape ecology, then you will instantly see patterns that were invisible to you before.
Knowledge of ecology is how the world’s best naturalists are able to anticipate events happening on a landscape with just a quick glance.
Traditional hunter & gatherer cultures are known around the world for their stunning abilities to perceive patterns and make predictions based on those patterns in all aspects of nature.
Their knowledge focuses on how everything in the world is connected. It’s integrative and holistic rather than specialized.
So if you want to go beyond the surface of nature and really connect with a more ancient and instinctive way of knowing the land, then ecology is truly the key.
So What Exactly Is Landscape Ecology?
Landscape ecology is really about being able to spot meaningful patterns and relationships between all the different elements of nature.
Here we don’t just focus on one single aspect of nature like plants or birds or trees.
Instead, we’re seeking to discover complex interactions and relationships that move across multiple layers of the natural world.
Each new layer of land ecology reveals unique insights about how the plants, birds, trees & animals function together as one.
Everything from the way the landscape has been formed and shaped over millions of years, to the specific collection of plants, birds, trees & animals living in that place!
Landscape ecology is essential to naturalists and it can dramatically increase your ability to make fast predictions about what might be happening on a landscape.
Here’s an example from wildlife tracking…
Did you ever consider that it’s very hard to track deer if you don’t know what kind of landscape the deer are most likely to be using?
What is the ecological context of a deer?
What do they eat?
Where do they sleep?
Where do they go for safety?
Where do they go when it snows?
If you know that deer like to go uphill to sleep under big pine trees where they can hear long distances, then it’s much easier to find them.
Likewise, it helps to know they like feeding in the alfalfa fields at dawn & dusk.
If you don’t know where the deer eat, sleep, and travel during different seasons then the best you can do is wander aimlessly hoping to find sign.
Plus: if you can know ecology really well, you don’t even have to be a great tracker in order to get really close to wild animals, and that’s pretty cool.
In almost every case… knowledge of ecology tells you the best place to start, and that can mean the difference of hours of time to find what you’re looking for.
This is how the best hunters in traditional nature based societies are able to find game & animals in vast landscape where most others would just get lost.
And landscape ecology applies in every different aspect of knowledge about nature, that you could possibly want.
- It tells you where the animals are
- It tells you where to look for berries & food
- It tells you where to find clean water
- It tells you where to find the best survival opportunities
- It even helps you navigate without getting lost!
So how does it all work?
And how can you grow your ecology skills?
To answer these questions, we simply need to start viewing nature as a big system of interactive elements.
Let’s break it all down…
What Are The Elements Of A Landscape?
One of the first steps for growing your knowledge of ecology is knowing the different elements that make up a complete ecological system.
Think of a landscape as a conglomerate of different elements coming together to form something bigger.
Just remember the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.
For example: A single blueberry plant on it’s own is just a plant.
But put it together with other plants, trees, fungi and suddenly a system comes to life with an ever-increasing potential for life.
Literally everything from the type of rocks that form the earth’s crust in your backyard, to the bacteria in the soil, are part of your landscape ecology.
Here are some of the main things to look at:
- Soil, rocks, humus, ground layer.
- Water in the form of rivers, creeks, lakes, ponds, rain.
- Plants, shrubs, mushrooms & mosses
- Trees tend to be one of the core drivers of diversity in a forest landscape.
- Mammals, birds, invertebrates, insects
- Topographical landscape structures that filter and funnel energy like hills, ridges, valleys & dips.
These are the basic landscape elements that come together in all landscapes to form unique ecologies.
Individually, these landscape elements have their own unique characteristics & benefits for the ecosystem.
But the real magic happens when these diverse elements come together and form a unique landscape ecology.
When you really stop to look carefully… each ecosystem has it’s own unique conglomeration of elements coming together to form a very specialized type of environment & habitat.
If you can read how these elements fit together then you will have one of the most essential naturalist skills.
The cool thing is that you don’t have to be an expert in all the specific plant & tree species in order to observe basic fundamental patterns in how they are organized.
That’s the real trick!
This is really just about observing patterns that require almost no technical knowledge yet provide you with incredible insight about the land.
So let’s really dive in and look at some practical examples of patterns you can start looking for immediately whenever you go outside.
We’ll start with the macro level…
What is a landscape structure?
A landscape structure is simply the particular way geology has been formed and shaped over millions of years.
It’s the unique way your landscape topography has been made to filter, flow & re-direct energy… especially water, but also wind, sun, bio-matter, etc.
Landscape structures are very easy to observe.
And they have enormous impact on how different types of plants & animals interact with the environment.
How To Observe Landscape Structures
Imagine that you’re a soaring eagle and you can fly way high up above the landscape.
You’re gliding along, feeling the wind in your feathers and the whole world stretched out before you.
Now look down at your home from up here and what do you see?
Do you see hills?
Do you see flat land?
Do you see water?
Do you see ridges? Lakes? Rivers? Mountains?
These are all the structures of your landscape.
It’s the result of how natural forces like wind, water & volcanic activity have shaped the earth’s crust over millions of years.
But these structures now have a significant impact on how things grow (or not) in your environment.
Here’s another example. Take a look at this picture:
Now I want you to consider this question…
What can you already know about the environment in this photo without even looking at the specific plants, trees & animals that occupy the space below?
Without even looking at the species…
Can you predict areas where water is collecting?
Which areas are more likely to be dry?
Which areas are exposed to wind & sun?
Which areas are more dark or sheltered from extreme weather?
Notice how the fog stays low in the second valley… What does that tell you? Why is the fog gathering there instead of the first valley?
It’s amazing, isn’t it?
Without even looking at the specific plants or animal species, we can already start to make some big picture predictions about how survival resources are collecting in this environment.
That’s the power of learning to see your land like a topographical map.
The key with landscape structures is to follow the water.
This is easy to visualize by looking for convex and concave patterns…
Convex land structures funnel water into valleys. While concave land structures wick water away creating more high & dry conditions.
With a bit of practice, these are very basic types of landscape structures you can use to track the flow of wind, water, even fog through the land.
The resulting plant & wildlife communities in those diverse conditions can be starkly contrasting with lush growth in some areas & mossy rock barrens in others.
Now let’s explore some patterns to look for in plant & wildlife communities.
This is the exciting part.
Different Types of Landscapes
My favorite part of landscape ecology comes from looking at different types of plant & wildlife communities that form.
Each landscape on our planet has unique quirks & characteristics, and all you need is a touch of observation & curiosity to see them.
The best part is that it’s super EASY.
At this stage, it really doesn’t matter if you know the names of the trees & plants living in your environment.
Now don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying there isn’t a major advantage to knowing the names of plants & trees.
But you’ll be amazed by how much you can predict about a landscape without knowing any of the specifics.
This is often a relief to beginners who might feel overwhelmed by the need to learn names for all your local species.
So let’s dive into some examples of landscape types…
Forested landscapes are dominated by trees, and below the canopy is an incredible ecosystem of plants, fungi, insects, squirrels, rodents, life & death.
But each forest is also unique. There’s lots of different types of forests.
Forest ecologies can also be a mixture of different types of forests.
Each variation bringing their own unique ecologies and niches to benefit the lives of plants & animals.
What kinds of forests are growing in your bio-region?
Of course… forests aren’t the only type of landscape ecology that exists in nature.
Here’s an example of field ecology.
Notice there are very few trees in this environment.
It’s mostly low lying shrubs and lots of grasses.
In 100 years this field might still be occupied by many of the same species, or it might go through the stages of succession into a full on forest.
Wetlands are another common type of ecology to look for.
Wetlands frequently play an essential role in the overall health of an ecosystem by cleaning the water.
They come in both fresh water & salt water varieties, with many different types of plant communities supporting diverse wildlife.
Edge habitats are a very special ecology that occurs at the borders between different types of landscapes.
The edges of forest & field, or the edges of forest & wetland creates a dynamic intersection of wildlife & plant diversity that makes these some of the most dense and opportunistic ecologies.
Just for fun… Here’s a mix of aquatic & forest habitat that gives rise to surprising behaviour from a pygmy three-toed sloth.
If you take a minute to reflect on the different types of forests & fields you’ve visited in your lifetime… this is all pretty much just common sense and good observation.
But I remember there was a time in my life when I didn’t even consider why some places are forests and others are fields.
From the Everglades of Florida, to the African Savanna, our world is filled with an incredible diversity of landscape types.
I highly recommend getting to know the most common ecology types in your local area because it’s like taking healthy, organic steroids for your naturalist intelligence.
I learned a lot from the Peterson field guide to Eastern forests. If you’re in Eastern North America it will be a valuable resource for you.
The Importance of Biodiversity
One of the most important things to keep in mind when assessing landscape ecology is the principle of Biodiversity.
Biodiversity means how many different species are co-existing together in one place.
There’s a huge difference between a forest landscape that’s composted of only 1 or 2 types of trees compared to a forest that has a much wider diversity of trees.
If you just start looking… These differences can be observed in the blink of an eye.
Yet they have a HUGE impact on what plants & animals you might expect to find in abundance.
This means that a forest with high biodiversity in trees will also have a higher biodiversity with plants, birds, mammals, etc.
If you want to get a great tutorial in how to spot important patterns of a forest – check out my free video: How To Read The Secrets Of A Forest
Go Read The Stories of Your Landscape!
Landscape ecology is an essential doorway to amazing discoveries in nature.
The best part is that you can make all these discoveries in your own backyard without any technical knowledge or skills.
This is very similar to the way traditional humans have studied nature for thousands of years… and it leads to a much more rewarding & deeply connected relationship with the land grounded in real life practical experience.
You’ll find your perceptions opening and new discoveries come as you explore landscape ecology.
Have fun out there… And let me know what you discover!