Introduction

Biotope is a synthetic Greek word combining 'bios' (meaning life) and 'topos' (meaning place). The German scientist Friedrich Dahl introduced the term biotope in 1908 as the habitat in which a particular group of animal and plant species live. This term was a complement of the term biocoenosis (attributed to Karl Mobius in 1877), meaning the group of animals and plants living together in a specific habitat. In this sense, biotope is considered to be the physical (abiotic) conditions in which a biocoenosis exists. In 1935, biotope and bio-coenosis were incorporated into the term of ecosystem coined by Arthur Tansley.

The term biotope is being used interchangeably with habitat, the latter more in the Anglo-Saxon ecological literature and the former more in other European one. The term habitat has a number of different uses, but is generally considered to represent the physical conditions that surround a species, a species population, and an assemblage of species or community. However, biotope has to be assigned to the community concept and habitat to the species concept. In addition, the term biotope is not limited to encompassing only physical conditions that surround a community of organisms but it also includes the relative biota. Therefore, biotope is a division of the landscape (a topographic unit) characterized by similar environmental (physical) conditions and a specific assemblage of plant and animal species, that is, a set of adjacent places in a given geographic region having more or less similar biotic and abiotic features. Thus, a species has a certain habitat, but the group of species that share an ecosystem with that species in a geographic region share a biotope.

As a structural component of the ecosystem, the spatial and temporal definition of a biotope comes up against the same methodological difficulties as its higher-level organizational capstone concept, that is, ecosystem. The definable boundaries of a biotope are more dependent on the aim of the study and on the criteria posed by the researcher than geographical, and, thus, are somewhat arbitrary. Biotopes are often described based on dominant species or suites of conspicuous species present in areas sharing similar physical conditions. When geographically defined discontinuities occur such as small islands, mountain peaks, caves, thermal vents, hot springs, vernal pools, nutritionally imbalanced substrates (e.g., serpentine, limestone), and isolated vegetation fragments in the landscape, distinct biotopes can be easily identified. Differentially, biotope identification, as well as ecosystem identification, is far more problematic, because the natural environment cannot be easily divided into a series of discrete and discontinuous units as it represents different parts of a high variable continuum.

The earliest static perceptions of biotope tended to link it to the location, extent, and substratum of a given biocoenosis. As a 'container' system, the biotope was viewed as qualitatively uniform, where ecological factors are invariable in space. The cognitive evolution toward the concept of ecosystem allowed a functionalist and dynamic approach since it has introduced the processes of transformation, circulation, and accumulation of energy and matter between and within the components of the system. Within this ecosystemic framework and its primacy in modern ecological thinking, the biotope is connected directly and/or indirectly to values, functions, goods, and services of natural systems and biodiversity in the perspective of global change. Biodiversity is being eroded across all levels of biological organisation due to the changing pattern of land use and climate change. These changes are expected to have major impacts upon processes that maintain ecosystem functioning (e.g., productivity, decomposition, nutrient cycling, and resistance to weed invasion) by altering species richness and composition, as well as the evenness of plant communities.

Thus, the concept of biotope appears instrumental in the investigation of theoretical issues such as the ecological niche, the functional relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem processes such as production and the applied problems of nature conservation (e.g., designing nature reserve systems or networks).

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