Biotope is an area of uniform environmental conditions providing a living place for a specific assemblage of plants and animals. Biotope is almost synonymous with the term habitat, which is more commonly used in English-speaking countries. However, in some countries these two terms are distinguished: the subject of a habitat is a species or a population, the subject of a biotope is a biological community.
It is an English loanword derived from the German "Biotop", which in turn came from the Greek bios='life' or 'organism' and topos='place'. (The related word geotope has made its way into the English language by the same route, from the German "Geotop".) The word biotope, literally translated, means an area where life lives.
The concept of a biotope was first advocated by Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919): a German zoologist famous for the recapitulation theory. In his book General Morphology (1866), which defines the term "ecology", he stresses the importance of the concept of habitat as a prerequisite for an organism's existence. Heackel also explains that with one ecosystem, its biota is shaped by environmental factors (such as water, soil, and geographical features) and interaction among living things; the original idea of a biotope was closely related to evolutional theory. Following this, F. Dahl, a professor at the Berlin Zoological Museum, referred to this ecological system as a "biotope" (biotop) (1908).
Although the term "biotope" is considered to be a technical word with respect to ecology, in recent years the term is more generally used in administrative and civic activities. Since the 1970s the term "biotope" has received great attention as a keyword throughout Europe (mainly Germany) for the preservation, regeneration, and creation of natural environmental settings. Used in such a context, the word biotope often refers to a smaller and more specific ecology and is very familiar to human life. In Germany especially, activities related to regenerating biotopes are enthusiastically received. These activities include:
- making roof gardens
- reconstructing rivers to restore their natural qualities
- leaving bushes or trees on farms
- building nature parks along motorways "Autobahn"
- making school gardens or ponds by considering the ecosystem
- bearing in mind ecological considerations in private gardens
Various sectors play a part in these activities, including architecture, civil engineering, urban planning, traffic, agriculture, river engineering, limnology, biology, education, landscape gardening, and domestic gardening. In all fields, all sorts of people are seeking a viable way for humans to respect other living things. The term "biotope" would include a complete environmental approach.
The following four points are the chief characteristics of biotopes.
First, a biotope is generally not considered to be a large-scale phenomenon. For example, a biotope might be a neighbouring park, a back garden, even potted plants or a fish tank on a porch. In other words, the biotope is not a macroscopic but a microscopic approach to preserving the ecosystem and biological diversity. So biotopes fit into ordinary people's daily activities and lives. Thus more people can participate in biotope creation and continuing management.
Second, it is commonly emphasised that biotopes should not be isolated. Instead biotopes need to be connected to each other and other surrounding life for without these connections to life-forms such as animals and plants, biotopes would not effectively work as a place in which diverse organisms live. So one of the most effective strategies for regenerating biotopes is to plan a stretch of biotopes, not just a point where animals and plants come and go. (Such an organic traffic course is called a corridor.) In the stretch method, the centre of the network would be large green tracts of land: a forest, natural park, or cemetery. By connecting parcels of land with smaller biotope areas such as a green belt along the river, small town parks, gardens, or even roadside trees, biotopes can exist in a network. In other words, a biotope is an open not a closed system and is a practicable strategy.
Human daily life
Third, the term biotope does not apply to biosphere reserves which are completely separate from humans and become the object of human admiration. Instead it is an active part of human daily life. For example, an ornamental flower bed may be considered to be a biotope (albeit rather a small one) since it enhances the experience of daily life. An area which has many functions, such as human living space, and is home to other living things whether plant or animal, can be considered a biosphere reserve.
Finally, when artificial items are introduced to a biotope setting, the design and arrangement of these specific items is of great importance for biotope regeneration. Tree-planting areas where the surface is uneven results in plants which sprout and the nesting of small insects. A mat or net made from natural fibres will gradually biodegrade as it is exposed to the weather. So there is not binomial opposition between the natural and the artificial in a biotope. Rather, such artificial materials are widely used.
It is especially characteristic in Germany, which is the birthplace of the term biotope, that the authorities take the initiative in conserving biotopes, maintaining consistency with urban or rural planning and considering the regions' history and landscape.
The federal nature-protect law (Bundesnaturschutzgesetz, since 1976) requires that wild animals and plants and their community should be protected as part of the ecosystem in the specific diversity which has grown naturally and historically, and their biotope and other living conditions should be protected, preserved, developed, and restored. (Number 9, Clause 1, Article 2) The law also requires that some kinds of biotope which are full of specific variety should not be harmed by development. So there is a law which obliges the protection of biotopes. There is also a provincial law corresponding to the federal one. Such developments were uncommon in those times.
Many German states are obliged by law to produce a landscape plan (Landschaftsplan) as part of their urban planning, though these plans vary somewhat from place to place. The purpose of the "Landschaftsplan" is to protect the region's environment and landscape. These plans use text and figures to describe the present environmental state and proposed remedies. They consider, for example, the regional lie of the land, climate, wind direction, soil, ground water, type of biotope, distribution of animals and plants, inhabitants' welfare and competition with development projects.
Biotope preservation in cities also emphasises recreation and relaxation for citizens and improving the urban environment. For example, in the reserve of Karlsruhe in Baden-Württemberg people can cycle on the bike path or walk the dog, although it is forbidden to gather plants and animals there or walk in the exclusion zone. At the core of biotope preservation is the idea that if civic life is surrounded by a rich profusion of nature whose background is in local history and culture, it is improved by protecting nature and preserving the landscape.
The term biotope is also used by aquarium hobbyists to describe an aquarium setup which tries to simulate the natural habitat of specific fish. The idea is to replicate conditions such as water temperature, natural plants, water type (fresh, saline or brackish), lighting, and other native fish which represent a particular real-world biotope. An example of one South American biotope type might be lots of bog-wood, a few native plants, with dark substrata and subdued lighting with floating plants, along with marbled hatchets, angels, cardinals, otos, corys and plecostomus.
- Dieter Duhm
- Ecological land classification
- Water garden
- Garden pond
- Koi pond
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- Atushi Iwasawa.(2005). Preservation of biotope from zoological view point: Introduction: What is biotope?, from The January, 2005, issue of Biological Science News[dead link]
- School biotope is a subject matter for environmental and lifelong learning. Retrieved October 24, 2006, from Eco Culture Lab Net
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-  Atsushi.I.(2005)
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- CORINE Biotopes Manual - Habitats of the European Community
- German Biotopes (www.biolflor.de)[dead link]
- Swiss Plant Biotopes
- MarLIN The Marine Life Information Network for Britain & Ireland
- Biotope Aquariums at Badman's Tropical Fish
- Wondermondo - list of 66 unusual and beautiful biotopes of the world