The problem of boundaries in defining ecosystems: A potential landmine for uniting geomorphology and ecology

David M. Post, Martin W. Doyle, John L. Sabo, Jacques C. Finlay

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

108 Scopus citations


Forging stronger linkages between geomorphology and ecosystem ecology depends, in part, upon developing common conceptualizations of an ecosystem. Because most ecosystem processes are scale dependent, the choice of boundaries is of profound importance to the conceptualization of an ecosystem and to the scope and validity of questions being asked within that ecosystem. Indeed, any conceptualization of an ecosystem requires constraining the spatial and temporal scales of analysis. Thus, it is of particular importance to match the ecosystem boundaries to the question being asked or to the processes being studied and, to facilitate better communication among disciplines, to be explicit in the definitions adopted for an ecosystem. Defining an ecosystem can be problematic when the processes of interest operate at potentially different scales, and little research exists comparing scales of geomorphic processes with those of ecological processes. Here we will discuss the importance of scale in geomorphic and ecological research, and compare and contrast disciplinary biases and inclinations. To highlight the problem of conflicting spatial scales, we will draw on recent attempts to link the structure of food webs to measures of ecosystem size. In particular, problems arise where little or no strong association exists among community membership, resource supply, and physical boundaries. Similar problems arise when trying to link geomorphologic and ecological processes that can operate at different, but variable, temporal scales.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)111-126
Number of pages16
Issue number1-2 SPEC. ISS.
StatePublished - Sep 1 2007

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank M. Brandon, C. Layman, and L. Puth for their helpful discussion about and comments on this manuscript, and Michael Delong and Michael Paul for their reviews of an earlier version. This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (DEB #0316679).


  • Boundary
  • Community membership
  • Ecosystem
  • Food chain length
  • Food web
  • Resource subsidies
  • Spatial scale
  • Temporal scale


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