abiotic factor


noun Ecology.

a nonliving condition or thing, as climate or habitat, that influences or affects an ecosystem and the organisms in it: Abiotic factors can determine which species of organisms will survive in a given environment.

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Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

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What is an abiotic factor?

An abiotic factor is a part of an environment or ecosystem that isn’t alive.

Abiotic factors vs. biotic factors

Abiotic factors are usually contrasted with biotic factors. If you know your Greek roots, you could probably guess the meaning of both words on your own!

Bio- means “life” (as in biology, the study of living things, but also as in biography, “life-writing”) from the Greek biōtikós  meaning “pertaining to life.” Which is why biotic means “related to life.”

Abiotic has the common prefix a- meaning “not, without.” Just as amoral means “lacking in morals,” abiotic etymologically means “away from things pertaining to life.”

Abiotic factor is generally used in the context of a particular ecosystem. An ecosystem is a bunch of organisms and the environment in which they live. Biotic factors are living parts (the organisms) of that ecosystem, and abiotic factors are nonliving parts (often, the habitat).

Some examples of abiotic factors that can make a difference in the life of an organism include sunshine, amount of water, salinity (salt content) of water, wind, temperature, elevation, soil type, radiation, and pollution.

Let’s think about fish. Some fish need to live in salt water, some fish need to live in fresh water, and some fish need to live in brackish water (water that is a mix of fresh and salt water). An ocean fish, like the clownfish, needs a comparatively high amount of salt in the water to stay alive. But a freshwater fish, like a trout, needs a low amount of salt in the water to stay alive.

The amount of salt in the water, then, is an abiotic factor that can contribute to how suitable an ecosystem is for a clownfish or a trout to live in. The clownfish and the trout are biotic factors in their ecosystems.

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One caveat about abiotic factors: they have to come from something that isn’t alive. For example, organic waste products aren’t alive, but they come from something that is alive, so they count as biotic factors, not abiotic.

What are real-life examples of abiotic factor?

Abiotic factor is most often used in the context of biology and ecology. Biologists and biochemists can run experiments testing the effects of various abiotic factors on a particular entity. Ecologists can discuss the effects of abiotic factors on a preexisting ecosystem.

Abiotic factors can change over time. Unfortunately, sometimes that can be a negative result of human action. Pollution, for example, is an abiotic factor that can have a serious impact on an ecosystem.

But science isn’t all gloom and doom …