Questions and Answers about BIOLOGY

by Ken Miller and Joe Levine


(4) QUESTION: Can you give any examples of cases in which knowledge of Ecology has helped the Environment? (from Anthony, in New York)

Dear Anthony,

There are many cases in which environmental knowledge has done a great deal of good on the local, national, and global levels. Sometimes, the environmental improvements have come when sound scientific information has been used to craft and pass well-informed, properly-implemented laws and international agreements. Other times, the improvements have come when the same kind of sound science has been used to influence the behavior of individuals, corporations, and governments without the use of legislation. I can only mention a few specific cases here, but there are many.

Before I talk about any specific cases, however, let me put in context for you.
When we talk about “improving the environment,” we mean the environment in the same way we define it in textbooks: the sum of all physical and biological factors surrounding organisms. That’s why, in some cases, ecological research concentrates on physical aspects of local or global environments, such as the chemical composition of the atmosphere or the presence of potentially dangerous compounds in water supplies. In other cases, research concentrates on biological aspects of the environment, such as protecting endangered species or ecosystems, or controlling the introduction of potentially dangerous organisms to new environments. Naturally, there are many cases of research that look at both physical and biological aspects of the environment, because they interact so strongly.

One of the most important international ecological agreements of the last half-century was the environmental treaty of 1987 in which 27 countries agreed upon the Montreal Protocol to Reduce Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. How did so many countries agree on a treaty that profoundly affected major businesses? The agreement was based on ecological knowledge that was absolutely sound. (The science behind the Montreal Protocol earned the 1995 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for Professors F. S. Rowland at University of California at Irvine, M. Molina at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, and Paul Crutzen at the Max-Planck-Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany.) Since the treaty was ratified, the increase in atmospheric chlorofluorocarbons has slowed significantly. If you are using our new dragonfly book, you can find a discussion of chlorofluorocarbons, the ozone layer and the effects of this treaty on pages 157-158.

Additional information on chlorofluorocarbons and their effect on the ozone layer can be found at:

More specific information on the Montreal Protocol and more references for even more information can be found at:

On a more local, but still national level, the Clean Air Act, passed 1970, had positive effects on both air and water supplies across North America. This legislation was also based on sound science that investigated the ecological effects of various pollutants on human health and on the health of both wild and domesticated animals and plants. Between the time the act was passed and 1998, there were dramatic decreases in emission of four of the six pollutants targeted: Carbon Monoxide, Volatile Organic Compounds, Sulfur Dioxide, and Lead. Largely because of the requirement that new automobiles use unleaded gasoline, lead emissions dropped an astonishing 98.2 percent! Soon thereafter, the amount of lead in rivers and streams across the country also dropped. Again, good science really works as the basis for good environmental policy!

For more information, you might want to check out:
On the biological side of things, one of the most dramatic results of ecological studies on the plight of endangered species resulted in an international treaty usually called CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) that was designed to encourage countries around the world to voluntarily stop trade in items obtained from endangered species of animals and plants.

For more information on CITES, you can check:

One of the most recent issues involving the interactions of humans with the environment concerns the introduction of foreign (usually called “exotic”) species into new environments. Because introduced species often lack predators and parasites in new environments, they can often reproduce wildly out of control, becoming what are called “biological invaders” that cause serious problems for farmers and agricultural industries as well as natural ecosystems. Increased ecological knowledge is helping to improve this situation in at least two ways. On one hand, there are now tighter controls on the importation of organisms to many places. (You may be particularly aware of this if you live in a heavily agricultural state such as California, Texas, or Florida.) On the other hand, increased understanding of the biological factors that regulate plant and animal populations can sometimes help bring biological invaders under control by identifying and (CAREFULLY!) importing their natural predators or parasites. This is an area in which intensive research is underway. Many biologists see this phenomenon as far more important to the long-term future of life on the planet than any other single environmental issue.

For more information on this topic, you might want to check out:

For a great list of links to ongoing research and issues in this area, check out:

Hope this answers your question!

All The Best,

Joe Levine (2/11/02)

Click Here for a list of Other Questions.
(A web site developed by Ken Miller and Joe Levine to provide scientific and educational support for teachers and students using our textbooks)