Temperature: Temperature is the most ecologically relevant environmental factor. You are aware that the average temperature on land varies seasonally, decreases progressively from the equator towards the poles and from plains to the mountain tops. It ranges from subzero levels in polar areas and high altitudes to >500C in tropical deserts in summer.
There are, however, unique habitats such as thermal springs and deep-sea hydrothermal vents where average temperatures exceed 1000 C.
It is general knowledge that mango trees do not and cannot grow in temperate countries like Canada and Germany, snow leopards are not found in Kerala forests and tuna fish are rarely caught beyond tropical latitudes in the ocean.
You can readily appreciate the significance of temperature to living organisms when you realise that it affects the kinetics of enzymes and through it the basal metabolism, activity and other physiological functions of the organism.
A few organisms can tolerate and thrive in a wide range of temperatures (they are called eurythermal), but, a vast majority of them are restricted to a narrow range of temperatures (such organisms are called stenothermal). The levels of thermal tolerance of different species determine to a large extent their geographical distribution.
Can you think of a few eurythermal and stenothermal animals and plants? In recent years, there has been a growing concern about the gradually increasing average global temperatures (Chapter 16). If this trend continues, would you expect the distributional range of some species to be affected?
Water: Next to temperature, water is the most important factor influencing the life of organisms. In fact, life on earth originated in water and is unsustainable without water. Its availability is so limited in deserts that only special adaptations make it possible to live there.
The productivity and distribution of plants is also heavily dependent on water. You might think that organisms living in oceans, lakes and rivers should not face any water-related problems, but it is not true.
For aquatic organisms the quality (chemical composition, pH) of water becomes important. The salt concentration (measured as salinity in parts per thousand), is less than 5 per cent in inland waters, 30-35 per cent the sea and > 100 per cent in some hypersaline lagoons.
Some organisms are tolerant of a wide range of salinities (euryhaline) but others are restricted to a narrow range (stenohaline). Many freshwater animals cannot live for long in sea water and vice versa because of the osmotic problems, they would face.
Light: Since plants produce food through photosynthesis, a process which is only possible when sunlight is available as a source of energy, we can quickly understand the importance of light for living organisms, particularly autotrophs.
Many species of small plants (herbs and shrubs) growing in forests are adapted to photosynthesise optimally under very low light conditions because they are constantly overshadowed by tall, canopied trees. Many plants are also dependent on sunlight to meet their photoperiodic requirement for flowering. For many animals too, light is important in that they use the diurnal and seasonal variations in light intensity and duration (photoperiod) as cues for timing their foraging, reproductive and migratory activities.
The availability of light on land is closely linked with that of temperature since the sun is the source for both. But, deep (>500m) in the oceans, the environment is perpetually dark and its inhabitants are not aware of the existence of a celestial source of energy called Sun. What, then is their source of energy?). The spectral quality of solar radiation is also important for life. T
he UV component of the spectrum is harmful to many organisms while not all the colour components of the visible spectrum are available for marine plants living at different depths of the ocean. Among the red, green and brown algae that inhabit the sea, which is likely to be found in the deepest waters? Why?
Soil: The nature and properties of soil in different places vary; it is dependent on the climate, the weathering process, whether soil is transported or sedimentary and how soil development occurred.
Various characteristics of the soil such as soil composition, grain size and aggregation determine the percolation and water holding capacity of the soils. These characteristics along with parameters such as pH, mineral composition and topography determine to a large extent the vegetation in any area.
This is in turn dictates the type of animals that can be supported. Similarly, in the aquatic environment, the sediment-characteristics often determine the type of benthic animals that can thrive there.