Systems Ecology An Introduction
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Systems Ecology An Introduction

Understanding the workings of ecosystems
4.2 (7 ratings)
Instead of using a simple lifetime average, Udemy calculates a course's star rating by considering a number of different factors such as the number of ratings, the age of ratings, and the likelihood of fraudulent ratings.
20 students enrolled
Last updated 2/2016
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  • 4.5 hours on-demand video
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What Will I Learn?
  • The aim of this course is to give you a solid grasp of the core concepts within the domain of systems ecology
  • By the end of the course you should be familiar with and be able to apply the most important models from systems ecology
View Curriculum
  • There are no prerequisites to this course aside for a firm grasp of the english language and a basic level of general scientific knowledge


This course is an introduction to the area of systems ecology, the application of systems theory to the study of ecosystems. Systems ecology uses mathematical modeling and computation to try and understand the networks of interactions between biotic and abiotic elements that give rise to the complex system of an ecology on all scales, from modeling the flow of energy within a microbial ecosystem to trying to understand the nonlinear dynamics of earth’s entire biosphere.

Taking an integrative and interdisciplinary approach it bridges many areas from physics and biology to the social sciences. Whereas traditional ecology has studied ecosystems with little reference to human society, systems ecology breaks down this barrier to include industrial ecologies as an integral part of earth’s systems in the era of the anthropocene, when understanding the complex interaction between society and ecology is central to gaining traction on major contemporary environmental challenges.


This course is focused on providing you with the core principles and concepts in system ecology and is broken down into three main sections. In the first section we will be laying down the basics of systems theory in ecology as we talk about, energetics, thermodynamics, emergent integrative levels and ecosystem dynamics.

Next we will be looking at nonlinear systems theory within ecology, as we talk about feedback loops, how ecosystems self-organize, the nonlinear dynamics of abrupt ecosystem regime shifts, stability landscapes and ecological networks.

The final section will be dedicated to socio-ecological systems, we will firstly talk about the new geological era of the anthropocene and the rapidly changing relationship between ecosystem and society. We will look at the area of industrial ecology, models for interpreting socio-ecological systems, their adaptive capacity and resilience, finally we will take an overview to the new area of sustainability science.

Who is the target audience?
  • This course is intended for a broad group of people but will be particularly relevant for those with a background in math or science
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Curriculum For This Course
17 Lectures
Course Overview
1 Lecture 02:23

This video is designed to give a highlevel overview to the content we will be covering in the course

Preview 02:23
Ecological Systems
7 Lectures 01:52:01

In this module we will be giving a high level view to the domain of systems ecology, describing it as the application of systems theory to the study of ecology, as it studies the interaction between organisms and their abiotic environment through systems models. We talk about how it is based upon the process of reasoning called synthesis that is focused primarily on the interaction between systems components and the patterns that emerge out of this instead of the properties of the components themselves.

Preview 09:45

In this module we will continue on with our discussion on systems ecology as we talk about some of the basic principles and theories within this area, including systems theory that provides the basic abstract generic models.
Energetics that helps to study the flow of energy and materials through networks of biotic and abiotic elements within an ecosystem and try to understand the universal thermodynamic laws that govern these processes. We talk about the idea of hierarchy and integrative levels of organization, that is used to structure our understanding of ecosystems in terms of emergent levels with their own integrated patterns and processes. We discuss feedback loops as another set of models central to understanding regulatory processes and the dynamics of macro scale complex systems as they evolve over time. Finally we try to offer a little context to the subject as it relates to a current need for an integrated understanding of socio-ecological systems given the contemporary societal challenges of sustainability.

Systems Ecology Part 2

In this module we will be briefly outlining the basics of equilibrium and nonequilibrium thermodynamics that forms much of the theoretical underpinnings to systems ecology. We firstly define thermodynamics in a very broad sense as the theory and study of how energy transforms matter through processes, we then go on to talk about the four laws of equilibrium thermodynamics. We discuss non-equilibrium thermodynamics as dealing with systems that are more open than closed, having an almost continuous exchange with their environment where we now have to interpret them in term of a constant change, flux or flow of resources from the environment. We talk about the theory of dissipative systems that maintain themselves on some energy gradient allowing them to maintain a semi-stable state far from equilibrium, importing energy and exporting entropy, a dynamic that is characteristic of biological systems of all kind. Finally we will discuss the idea of exergy as a metric for measuring this out of equilibrium state and the vitality of an ecological system.

In this module we will be taking a very high level overview to ecologies through the lens of systems theory. We first discuss how an ecology is before anything else a physical system, where we are dealing with the interaction of energy and matter. Energy is being processed through the system, and each stage of that process involves the construction and deconstruction of matter into various structures, what is called the charge discharge cycle, as energy is processed across some gradient through a network of biotic and abiotic elements.
We then go on to talk about the maximum power principle, a process of self-organization, where given enough input of free energy the system will endogenously self-organize to maximize the energy fluxes through the network as creatures co-evolve and co-adapt to occupy the various neches required. We talk about boundary conditions as a universal feature to biological systems, ecosystem dynamics and homeostasis as a product of feedback loops. Finally we will touch upon evolution as a process of selection over a set of elements to maximize the throughput to the ecosystem's metabolic network.

In this video we will be looking at the interaction between the elements within an ecosystem in terms of positive and negative synergies. We firstly talk about how all biological creatures occupy some local domain within the network of an ecosystem, wherein they intercept and transform resources but in so doing they must interact with other elements within the system. We talk about biological interactions as the effect that the organisms in a community have on one another, how we can understand these different interactions in terms of three types, predation, competition, and symbiosis, depending on whether there is a net gain or loss to one or both of the creatures through the interaction. We will look at ecological predation as any interaction between two organisms that results in a flow of energy or resources from one to another. When two or more niches overlap and organisms strive for the same resources then we will get a biological interaction of competition. We discuss mutualism as the way two organisms of different species exist in a relationship in which each individual benefits from the activity of the other and through which we can get the emergence of the division of labor and social complexity. Finally we will briefly talk about coevolution, a process whereby creatures develop in response to changes within each other.

In this video we will be talking about emergence and integration levels, central concepts within systems ecology that help to give some structure to our analysis of ecosystems. We talk about integrative levels, or levels of biological organization, as a set of phenomena emerging on pre-existing elements of a more basic form. How through the process of emergence we get many integrative levels creating a hierarchical structure that can exhibit self-similarity across many scales, called fractal structures, with smaller local phenomena nested within larger more generic structures. Finally we will discuss the complex micro macro dynamic within the hierarchy of ecologies where macro level emergent processes and structures feedback to both enable and constrain the micro level constituent components.


In this module we will be talking about ecosystem dynamics, how ecosystems change over time. We identify two qualitatively different patterns of development, linear and nonlinear. We talk about negative feedback loops as the basic mechanism through which biological creatures and whole ecosystems regulate themselves in order to achieve some condition conducive to their stable functioning. We will discuss the classical ecological theory of succession as a linear process of development, seen to lead to a climax community at a stable equilibrium state. We then go on to discuss positive feedback loops as brocken negative feedback that leads to a nonlinear process of development, where the system can be said to be out of control resulting in disturbance and possible collapse. By then combining these two patterns of development we look at a model called punctuated equilibrium; where the ecosystem follows both long term incremental linear development and rapid nonlinear punctuations
Ecosystems Dynamics
Nonlinear Ecology
4 Lectures 01:06:32

In this module we will be continuing on with our discussion on feedback loops, a topic of central interest within systems ecology and systems theory in general. We firstly give a brief outline to the two different types talking about negative feedback as a stabilizing mechanism, while positive feedback can have a destabilizing effect leading to both rapidly compounding beneficial outcomes, called virtuous cycles, or compounded detrimental outcomes called vicious cycles. We then go on to talk about some of the basics to nonlinear dynamics, introducing the idea of a state space and attractors within that space, with these attractors forming some stable equilibrium to the system's state. We look at the idea of a stability landscape that can have multiple stable basins of attraction within it and the idea of a repeller that forms an unstable space governed by positive feedback between these attractors. Finally we will talk about how the model of feedback loops and stability landscapes can be used as a basic model for analysing the resiliency of an ecosystem.

Feedback Loops

In this video we will be covering the topic of self-organization within biological systems. We talk about how the theory of self-organization helps us to approach one of the big questions within biology and ecology, that of organization or order. In particular how biological systems can evolve to exhibit greater structure and complexity over time by harnessing a dissipative process to enable the self-organization of their constituent elements into a functioning organism. We discuss the basic workings to this process of self-organization, as one that requires some initial state of entropy or randomness where small fluctuations can gain hold and become amplified through positive feedback into new patterns as they come to form stable basins of attraction that close in on themselves giving an emergent global pattern.

In this video we will be discussing the topic of nonlinear regime shifts within ecosystems, looking at how they can flip from one qualitatively different state to another within short periods of time. We talk about bistability as a set of alternative stable states or equilibria that ecosystems can exist under at any given time, representing some set of unique biotic and abiotic conditions. We will look at path dependency and hysteresis within this process, where the point at which the system flips from one regime to another is different from the point at which the system flips back. We see how tipping points are a key part of this dynamic representing a point at which there is an abrupt change in an ecosystem's properties and functionality due to runaway feedback. Finally we will talk about resiliency and early warning signals that might help in identifying when an ecosystem is approaching a critical point by probing the speed at which it returns to a stable constant after some intervention.
Regime Shifts

In this video we will be talking about ecological networks the application of network theory to modelling and analysing ecosystems in terms of their network of connections. We discuss some of the overall features to these networks including the overall level of connectivity, linkage density and degree distribution. We look at network modularity as describing to what extent the network can be divided into highly interacting local clusters, how centrality can be used as a measurement to how central a node is within a network and thus how significant it is within the overall system. Finally we will look at ecosystem resiliency in terms of the integrity of its network, noting how this can both enable robustness by enabling a greater flow of resources through the system, but also how it can add to vulnerability as it gives rise to the possibility of cascading food web disturbances.
Ecological Networks
SocioEcological Systems
5 Lectures 01:29:24
In this video we will be talking about the anthropocene, we firstly gave an outline to its current definition as a geological epoch following the Holocene and talked about its acceptance within the natural sciences and the debate surrounding its dating. We talk about a number of key stages marking this major shift in the relation between human civilization and the natural environment, identifying the neolithic revolution as the origins of humans as major ecosystems engineers through the development of agriculture and urbanization. We will look at the Industrial Revolution as the next major step in this process that created major socio-economic upheaval displacing traditional feedback loops between society and environment, and then mentioned the great acceleration as a major shift as many socio-economic indicators began to rise at an unprecedented exponential rate that continues today. Finally we talk about the new paradigm associated with the anthropocene, a recognition that our traditional conception of nature in an untouched wild state does not really exist anymore. That humans have permanently changed the biosphere and in so doing the global economy has become its primary regulatory system. With the remaining question being how can we change a historically zero sum game into a positive sum synergistic interaction between economy and ecology?

In this video we will look at the domain of industrial ecology, a relatively new interdisciplinary area that takes a holistic perspective to the modeling, designing and management of coupled ecological and industrial systems. A paradigm that looks at our industrial infrastructure from the perspective of natural ecologies and biomimicry.
We talk about some of its basic principles including the idea of industrial metabolism, representing the flow of materials and energy through industrial systems at different scales. Systems thinking which recognizes the need for a holistic perspective when dealing with these complex engineered systems. Synergies, how the different components interact with each other and the overall system. Recyclability and feedback loops, converting linear systems into nonlinear cyclical processes through identifying and closing feedback loops. Lastly we briefly look at some of the models and tools used in this area including life cycle analysis, input-output analysis, material flow accounting and stakeholder analysis.
Industiral Ecology

In this video we will be talking about socio-ecological systems which we define as a type of complex adaptive system composed of two primary subdomains, a human society and economy on the one hand and a biological ecology. We talk about how the two systems are governed by different internal feedback loops, on the one hand those of the economy and on the other those of thermodynamics and the ecology. How the interaction between these two systems involves the exchange of energy, matter and information. We will discuss how creating integrated balancing feedback loops between them requires defining some form of common value, what is often called natural capital but how the maintenance of ecosystem services invariably involves some form of commons, that is best managed through social institutions that can build trust and enable cooperation towards effective global outcomes. Finally we mention the cultural dimension that can play a very significant role in its capacity to change how people see the world, enabling better relations between the social and ecological domains.

SocioEcological Systems

In this video we will be talking about adaptive capacity and resiliency, the capacity of a socio-ecological system to maintain functionality given some alteration. We talk about the two fundamentally different strategies for achieving this, resistance and adaption. Where resistance involves trying to prevent any alteration to the system by controlling the environment and reducing the input values to the system thus enabling it to function optimally by reducing disturbances. Whereas we talk about adaptation as involving the maintenance of diversity so as to be able to generate the appropriate response required to counterbalance the disturbance, thus managing to maintain functionality. We then talk about the adaptive cycle as a model to the process of change within complex adaptive systems as it describes four different regimes of exploitation, conservation, release and reorganization, through which the system can evolve.

Adaptive Capacity

In this module we will been discussing the idea of sustainability within socio-ecological systems, looking at how this very complex emergent feature of a system is really the product of many different interacting factors on many different levels, making it an inherently interdisciplinary area of study that requires a systems approach for a full analysis. We firstly talk about it on the most basic level of the physical interaction between the economic and ecological domains identifying the variables involved such as the supply of ecosystem services the rate of consumption and the efficiency of technology infrastructure. We then go on to recognize the central role of adaption in enabling sustainability, talking about the adaptive capacity of a society as a function of both economic factors involving well aligned feedback loops that reduce externalities, but also social factors requiring social capital to enable local self-organizing adaptive resilience. Finally we will note the role of culture and social identity as another key dimension to the whole dynamic of sustainability within socio-ecological systems.

Sustainability Science
About the Instructor
Complexity Academy
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eLearning for systems thinking

Think Academy is an e-Learning site dedicated to the area of systems thinking and complexity theory, our mission is to take the world of complexity and make it accessible to all. Systems and complex can be intimidating subjects with many sophisticated concepts, this is why we believe it is important to always start with the most essential, simplest elements of a subject making sure that students come away with a solid understanding of the core concepts behind each area. As Einstein said "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler"

Courses are curated and presented by Joss Colchester. Joss has extensive experience within the domain of complex systems both within academic research(mathematical modeling of complex system + network analysis) and has many years practical systems engineering experience(designing and developing complex web based information systems). He has a passion for taking abstract and complex concepts and making them concrete and accessible to as broad an audience as possible by combining clear and effective graphics with well structured course content.