Ecotone is a transitional ecosystem between two biological communities.
This is the region where two communities meet and integrate.
The transitional zone may be local or regional, where the area can be between a field and a forest or amidst a forest and a grassland ecosystem, respectively.
Though ecotone appears as a gradual blend of the two communities, it is characterized by a sharp boundary line.
The word ecotone is derived from Greek words, which means ecology in tension.
Ecotones exhibit distinct transitions in their vegetation, indicated by clear lines between two communities along their boundaries. For instance, a change in the colors of grasses or plant life is an indication of the existence of ecotone.
The further physical appearance of a plant species is a key indicator of an ecotone. This is also known as physiognomy. This type of ecotones can be observed in estuaries, where boundaries are characterized by differences in the heights of plant species present in a different area. This is primarily because of differences in the accessibility to light. Here researchers look for differences in colors and height in plants.
Another key feature of an ecotone is the change of species, where organisms exhibit differences in their adaptations. A typical example of an ecotone is the region where amphibians are present, represents both terrestrial and aquatic life.
Factors affecting Ecotones:
The following factors highly influence ecotones:
Ecotones are often associated with ecocline, which is a physicochemical transition between two ecosystems. This includes changes in physical and chemical composition such as pH, salinity, soil conditions, and temperatures.
Therefore ecocline can be a thermocline, chemocline, halocline, or pycnocline (variations in density of water induced by temperature and salinity).
Ecocline transitions cannot be distinguished clearly but have more stable conditions and hence exhibit species richness in higher plants.
On the other hand, ecotones are highly distinct but are less stable and hence have lower species richness.
Ecotones are not only formed naturally through abiotic factors but also can be created due to human interferences such as clearing of forest areas or irrigation.
When organisms exhibit migration or new plants are formed, they can obscure the ecotone. Such factors thus lead to the spatial mass effect, where certain organisms cannot self-sustain when they go across their ecotone.
Ecological Significance of Ecotones:
Since the two areas are highly influenced by two bordering ecosystems, a higher density of organisms and a variety of species can be found in these regions. This increase in biodiversity is often referred to as the edge effect.
In cases where two communities survive after crossing their ecotone, this leads to species richness and speciation. This is recorded by ecologists to understand the food chain and survival of the organism. Therefore ecotone results in the formation of diverse ecosystems.
Since two communities integrate into an ecotone, different species live and compete for common resources. Hence the abundance of the introduced organism in an ecotone can reveal the type of biome and efficiency of two communities sharing the space.
Since ecotones exhibit greater genetic diversity, it may serve as bridges of gene flow from one population to another.
Further ecotones act as buffer zones by protecting the neighboring ecosystem from environmental damages. For instance, wetland areas can absorb pollutants, thus preventing them from seeping into a river.
Because of these features, ecotones are shown to serve as sensitive indicators of global changes. Thereby any shifting of boundaries is now believed to be a result of the climatic change.
Similarly, any change in flora and fauna in their boundaries is the result of environmental changes, and hence they serve as barometers for changes occurring in the environment.
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