Ecology (other)

Difference Between Autecology and Synecology

Javier Sánchez
By Javier Sánchez, Biologist. Updated: June 18, 2023
Difference Between Autecology and Synecology

Autecology and synecology are two of the approaches which can be taken to understand the larger discipline of ecology as a whole. Ecology is the study of communities of organisms, the ecosystems they inhabit and the relationships between species of organisms in a given environment. It is a very broad discipline which essentially covers all life on Earth. For this reason, there are different types of ecology to look at some of the most important aspects of the discipline in more specific detail. Autecology and synecology are two related forms of ecological study, but they also have important differences which distinguish them.

At thedailyECO, we look in more detail at the difference between autecology and synecology. We provide definitions of these areas of study and research, as well as provide examples to help illustrate their differences.

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  1. What is synecology?
  2. Applications of synecology with examples
  3. What is autecology?
  4. The difference between autecology and synecology

What is synecology?

Synecology is the branch of ecology that studies how the communities of an ecosystem are composed and structured. It is also dedicated to understanding their variations over time, the relationships between the different species that exist within a specific ecosystem and between the ecosystems themselves.

In ecology, a community is the term for a group of populations of two or more species inhabiting the same ecosystem. Specifically, this means they have to live in the same geographical space. Otherwise known as community ecology, synecology is the study of the interactions between these populations of species.

The interactions between species populations are constantly fluctuation, adapting and changing. It is for this reason time is as important as space when studying synecology. With this in mind, synecology also takes different approaches within its own field of study. The following are two important examples of synecology:

  • Descriptive synecology: uses a static point of view. This means it is limited to describing the groups of species that inhabit a given ecosystem. From descriptive synecology we can obtain data on the specific composition of a community, data on abundance, frequencies, constancy or their spatial distributions.

  • Functional synecology: uses a much more dynamic point of view. This approach considers two main aspects. It intends to describe the evolution of two groups and evaluate the influences that allow their existence in that specific environment. It also studies the exchanges of matter and energy between all the components of the ecosystem.

There are many different examples of what can be studied under the banner of synecology. One of the most important examples of synecology is the study of food in an ecosystem. This affects the biomass or energy chain that is established within and how different species can affect them.

It is by taking a synecological approach that we can better understand various types of interactions such as symbiosis in biology.

Difference Between Autecology and Synecology - What is synecology?

Applications of synecology with examples

The study of synecology offers a wide range of applications that are very useful in the study of the environment. Within this field of study are many different types of applications which would be too numerous to detail here. However, we can provide some helpful examples of synecology to provide a better understanding of how it functions:

  • Pollution: one application of synecology is how pollution affects the populations of species within an ecosystem. For example, the degree of soil contamination will have direct and indirect impacts on various species. Various studies have shown that soil contamination has a detrimental effect on ecological communities[1]. This is due to the different toleration levels various species have to pollutants or increased amount of metals in the soil. This is something which will also be covered by other ecological approaches such as soil ecology.

  • Plant growth height: dividing plant species according to the height above the ground that their perennial tissues reach provides different classes of plants. This is a way of finding out the strategies plants follow to adapt to the climatic conditions of their ecosystem. Studies have verified that the makeup of plant tissues are directly affected by climate change, as well as making them more vulnerable to underground animals from attacking their roots[2].

Another application is the study of the distribution of species in a given environment. This can be divided into three main categories:

  • Random: all areas of space have the same probability of being occupied and the presence of one does not affect the location of another.

  • Uniform shape: all areas of space have the same probability of being occupied and the presence of one affects the location of another.

  • Grouped form: all areas of space may or may not have the same probability of being occupied and the presence of one affects the location of another.

These are examples of how taking a synecological approach to plant and animal species can help us improve our interactions with various ecosystems. The implications are even larger since they also affect global issues such as climate change and population density.

Learn more about these types of impact with our article on what is environmental degradation?

What is autecology?

Autecology is the branch of ecology that is in charge of studying the adaptations that an individual species undergoes to be able to inhabit its specific ecosystem. These include the physiological, morphological and ethological characteristics that allow it to cope with the abiotic or biotic conditions of the ecosystem in which it lives. These adaptations are generally common in members of the population and are inherited by the species itself.

For this reason, autecology is also closely related to evolutionary biology. We can see an example of autecology by looking at the development of organs in different species:

  • Homologous organs: they are similar organs and with the same embryonic origin in two different species, but with different functions.

  • Analogous organs: they are similar organs in terms of morphology and function in two different species, but different in their embryonic origin.

Some of the applications of autecology are related to control of species. While human interference has led to many of the problems various animal species face on a daily basis, autecology can help with biological management in areas such as pest control and conservation. By studying how different plant an animal species adapt to their environments, we can see how they can be better protected.

We can take an autecological approach to better understand various adaptations in plant and animal species such as parallel evolution in biology.

Difference Between Autecology and Synecology - What is autecology?

The difference between autecology and synecology

In summary, the main difference between autecology and synecology is where the focus is placed. In autecology, individual species are studied in terms of how they interact with their environment. With synecology, the focus is on populations of species and how they interact with both each other and the environment.

There are many different disciplines which overlap with these two fields of study. These include other types of ecology, but also biology, ethology, evolutionary theory, genetics and many others. However, using these individual approaches can be useful because they limit the field of study and provide specific insight.

If you want to read similar articles to Difference Between Autecology and Synecology, we recommend you visit our Ecology (other) category.


1. Jensen, J., & Pedersen, M. B. (2006). Ecological risk assessment of contaminated soil. Reviews of environmental contamination and toxicology, 186, 73–105.

2. Pastore M. A. (2022). Bringing the underground to the surface: Climate change stressors negatively affect plant growth, with contrasting above and belowground physiological responses. Plant, cell & environment, 45(8), 2267–2270.

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Difference Between Autecology and Synecology