Ecosystem Services and Ecosystem Functions

Understanding the difference between the two

What is the difference between ecosystem functions and ecosystem services? This brief article describes the difference between these two often confused terms in environmental science and management. It aims to integrate and clarify the many definitions and viewpoints of ecosystem functions and ecosystem services currently available online.

Ecosystem Definition

“An ecosystem is defined as a community of lifeforms in concurrence with non-living components, interacting with each other.”

What is an Ecosystem?

An ecosystem is a structural and functional unit of ecology where the living organisms interact with each other and the surrounding environment. In other words, an ecosystem is a chain of interactions between organisms and their environment. The term “Ecosystem” was first coined by A.G.Tansley, an English botanist, in 1935.

Structure of the Ecosystem

The structure of an ecosystem is characterised by the organisation of both biotic and abiotic components. This includes the distribution of energy in our environment. It also includes the climatic conditions prevailing in that particular environment. 

The structure of an ecosystem can be split into two main components, namely: 

  • Biotic Components
  • Abiotic Components

The biotic and abiotic components are interrelated in an ecosystem. It is an open system where the energy and components can flow throughout the boundaries.

Ecosystem functions and ecosystem services are two different concepts of environmental science we need to be familiar with. This following describes these concepts.

Ecosystem Functions: Definition

Ecosystem functions are natural process or characteristic exchanges of energy that take place in the various animal and plant communities of the different ecosystems of the world—from micro-ecosystems to biomes.

Primarily, these are exchanges of energy and nutrients in the food chain which are vital to the sustenance of plant and animal life on the planet and the decomposition of organic matter and production of biomass made possible by photosynthesis. The dynamics in one component affect the dynamics of others that rely on its behavior, state, or productivity.

Simplified examples of ecosystem functions are:

  • Plant seeds disperse in various places through special accessory parts or animals as vectors and germinate in areas where they get deposited
  • Grazing and predation take place balancing plant and animal population
  • Young plant shoots actively produce biomass to achieve growth
  • Waste materials are degraded and recycled back into the soil
  • Dead organic matter decomposes into humus
  • Animals find their mate and reproduce

Ecosystem Services: Definition

Ecosystem services are ecosystem functions that serve human needs. Humans enjoy the natural functions of the ecosystem.

I name some ecosystem services and italicize the specific services of each description in the next section.

Examples of ecosystem services are:

  • Animals supply the protein needs of humans, serve as pets or animal skin for making shoes, bags, and other derivatives
  • Humus from decomposition of organic matter serve as natural fertilizer in areas cleared for agriculture
  • Trees serve as a buffer against storms preventing destruction of houses by strong winds (see the Ecosystem Services of Mangroves)
  • Photosynthesis removes carbon dioxide in the air and supplies oxygen to man
  • Trees serve as sources of timber for housing construction, among others
  • The watershed provides fresh, clean water for human consumption
  • Some species of plants can cure human ailments

Ecosystem services provide life support services crucial to the continued survival of both humans and animals. These ecosystem services are also susceptible to human abuse when actions do not favor or allow natural processes to take place, or if the ecosystem’s function is compromised because of environmental degradation or pollution.

For instance, when humans harvest too many trees, they will compromise the life-sustaining function of oxygen supply and carbon sequestration. Therefore, understanding these ecosystem services and knowing how to sustain them ensures the benefits accrue not only for this generation but also for the future generations.


To sum it all up, ecosystem function relates to the combination of ecosystem processes and components and how they work together to achieve ecological stability, while ecosystem services are offshoots of ecosystem function that satisfy, directly or indirectly, human needs.