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Woodland Ecosystem Boundaries

Vitor Vieira Vasconcelos

PhD in Natural Science
Associate Professor Federal University of ABC (UFABC)
November 2017


An ecosystem can be defined as an open system of biotic and abiotic

components that are linked by processes of energy transfer and material cycling
(Tansley, 1946). Scientists delimit ecosystems in different scales, and their
boundaries depend on the underlying research questions. In general, it is
preferable that these boundaries match spatial-temporal discontinuities or steep
gradients in fluxes of energy and matter, species interactions and
geomorphological forms or processes (Higashi and Burns, 1991; Post et al.,
2007). As systems, their boundaries can be characterized in terms of their width,
permeability and permanence. In this report, these aspects are analysed in the
context of a woodland ecosystem.

Factual Information

A woodland ecosystem can have sharp (thin) or gradual (wide) borders. For
example, a transition from a forest to an adjacent lake is sharply marked by the
line where land surface gives place to water. Conversely, as a forest goes uphill
along a mountain ridge, the trees may eventually become gradually sparser while
temperature decreases, giving space to open vegetation ecosystems. In this last
case, the ecosystems of woodland and open vegetation partially overlap through
their boundaries, consequently becoming more permeable to each other along
this transition.

One underlying assumption for a woodland ecosystem is that there would be a

stronger connection in the trophic cascade of the species that live within this
ecosystem, when compared to external species. However, there will always be
some degree of permeability; for example, there may be animals (such as deer)
that graze on adjacent open ecosystems, but return to the forest to sleep at night
(Seagle, 2003). This daily migration creates nutrient fluxes between adjacent
ecosystems, which therefore may be characterized as coupled ecosystems.

Woodland ecosystems may also be affected by energy and matter fluxes through
incoming and outgoing rivers and atmospheric dust. For example, springs of the
Andean ridge are important water sources for Amazon Forest. Furthermore, dust
blown from the Sahara desert travels across the Atlantic Ocean and brings
nutrients that increase fertility in the Amazon Forest (Swap et al. 1992; Kaufman
et al., 2005).

A woodland ecosystem is dynamic, and its boundaries may shift over time. For
example, global warming may increase the height where the transition from
woodland to open vegetation occurs in mountain gradients. In this case, the
expansion of a woodland ecosystem may be slow, following successional cycles.
The border from forests to savannahs, in tropical regions, can also change
through time, as the fire dynamics change by the action of grazers and
anthropogenic activities. Moreover, a significant factor for woodland ecosystem
retraction, nowadays, is the rate of anthropogenic deforestation, giving space to
pasture and agriculture.


This report showed how woodlands are a good example to discuss the
conceptual and factual aspects regarding width, permeability and permanence of
ecosystem boundaries. The delimitation of woodland ecosystems is useful for
research and policy contexts, but the relationships of these ecosystems with other
local, regional and global fluxes of energy and matter should not be forgotten.
Therefore, woodland ecosystems are better characterized as open systems,
rather than closed ones. The dynamics of expansion and retraction of woodland
ecosystems, regarding human drivers of change, is a relevant topic for
environmental conservation policies.

Higashi, M. and Burns, T.P. (eds) (1991) Theoretical Studies of Ecosystems: the
network perspective, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Kaufman, Y.J., Koren, I., Remer, L.A., Tanr, D., Ginoux, P. and Fan, S. (2005)
Dust transport and deposition observed from the Terra-MODIS space
observations, Journal of Geophysical Research, vol. 110, D10S12.

Post, D.M., Doyle, M.W., Sabo, J.L. and Finlay, J.C. (2007) The problem of
boundaries in defining ecosystems: a potential landmine for uniting
geomorphology and ecology, Geomorphology, vol. 89, pp. 11126.

Seagle, S.W. (2003) Can ungulates foraging in a multiple use landscape alter
forest nitrogen budgets?, Oikos, vol. 103, pp. 2304.

Swap, R., Garstang, M., Greco, S., Talbot, R. and Kallberg, P. (1992) Saharan
dust in the Amazon basin, Tellus B, vol. 44, pp. 13349.

Tansley, A.G. (1946) An Introduction to Plant Ecology, London, Unwin.