An ecosystem is a of living organisms in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment, interacting as a system. These biotic and abiotic components are linked together through nutrient cycles and energy flows. Energy enters the system through photosynthesis and is incorporated into plant tissue. By feeding on plants and on one-another, animals play an important role in the movement of matter and energy through the system. They also influence the quantity of plant and microbial biomass present. By breaking down dead organic matter, decomposers release carbon back to the atmosphere and facilitate nutrient cycling by converting nutrients stored in dead biomass back to a form that can be readily used by plants and other microbes.
Ecosystems are controlled by external and internal factors. External factors such as climate, parent material which forms the soil and topography, control the overall structure of an ecosystem but are not themselves influenced by the ecosystem. Unlike external factors, internal factors are controlled, for example, decomposition, root competition, shading, disturbance, succession, and the types of species present.
Ecosystems are dynamic entities—they are subject to periodic disturbances and are in the process of recovering from some past disturbance. Ecosystems in similar environments that are located in different parts of the world can end up doing things very differently simply because they have different pools of species present. Internal factors not only control ecosystem processes but are also controlled by them and are often subject to feedback loops.
Resource inputs are generally controlled by external processes like climate and parent material. Resource availability within the ecosystem is controlled by internal factors like decomposition, root competition or shading. Although humans operate within ecosystems, their cumulative effects are large enough to influence external factors like climate.
Biodiversity affects ecosystem functioning, as do the processes of disturbance and succession. Ecosystems provide a variety of goods and services upon which people depend.
The term ecosystem was first used in 1935 in a publication by British ecologist Arthur Tansley.[fn 1] Tansley devised the concept to draw attention to the importance of transfers of materials between organisms and their environment. He later refined the term, describing it as "The whole system, ... including not only the organism-complex, but also the whole complex of physical factors forming what we call the environment". Tansley regarded ecosystems not simply as natural units, but as "mental isolates". Tansley later defined the spatial extent of ecosystems using the term ecotope.
G. Evelyn Hutchinson, a limnologist who was a contemporary of Tansley's, combined Charles Elton's ideas about trophic ecology with those of Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky. As a result, he suggested that mineral nutrient availability in a lake limited algal production. This would, in turn, limit the abundance of animals that feed on algae. Raymond Lindeman took these ideas further to suggest that the flow of energy through a lake was the primary driver of the ecosystem. Hutchinson's students, brothers Howard T. Odum and Eugene P. Odum, further developed a "systems approach" to the study of ecosystems. This allowed them to study the flow of energy and material through ecological systems.