What Are Spatial and Temporal Patterns in Ecology?

Asked no one in Quora — mixing life and science for high levels of ecological literacy.

Cátia Matos


Photo by Maria Teneva on Unsplash

I know — ecological literacy is dull, thorny and sometimes not connected to the world that we live in. Especially if we don’t work in the field or find ourselves isolated from the natural world. Because yeh. That would take our minds out of patterns in nature.

But what I truly want you to ask yourself is — do you see patterns around you? And if you do — at what scale do you see these patterns? Maybe the seasons passing through by your window. Maybe the vascular system of the leaf in your garden’s tree. Maybe it’s a fox that always comes to get a bite from your dinner while those hot summer nights.

Patterns are related events that occur in space and time. Rhythm and intensity can vary. But you know that a natural phenomenon has a space and time to happen and that you can observe it on many many occasions. Otherwise is not a pattern, right?

In ecology, patterns can be categorized at different biological levels. From species to populations, to communities to ecosystems. Even at the lower levels, in physiology (organs) and behaviour of organisms, patterns have a scale, trigger ecological processes and link events through the seasons.

Species spatial use

Part of understanding species ecology is to identify their distribution.

We associate their distribution increase/decrease to spatial use and patterns in time. This reference may inform their biological importance. But also how, what and where species should be protected. This doesn’t mean that endangered species have restricted spatial patterns. But informs on areas with high species richness may be where protection can be allocated.

How species use space shows how fundamental ecological processes work in time. It’s like taking a picture of an encounter. If a species disappears where it was repeatedly seen, this may tell something important about that space. The pattern may be broken. The first clue of a chain of ecological events that can change in the future.



Cátia Matos

Movement Ecology Ph.D / Lecturer in Spatial Ecology / Publishing about research, data and life.