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Ecosystem Services 101

Ecosystem services, or “nature’s benefits,” are the contributions that a biological community and its habitat provide to the physical and mental well-being of the human population. Ecosystem processes and functions describe biophysical relationships that exist whether or not humans benefit from them—they are not synonymous with ecosystem services. Ecosystem services reflect the influence of these processes on society’s wellbeing.

Ecosystem services can be sorted into four categories:

  • Supporting services—materials necessary for the production of other ecosystem services
  • Provisioning services—products gained from ecosystems
  • Regulating services—benefits obtained from processes such as air or climate regulation
  • Cultural services—nonmaterial benefits derived by humans

Some examples of ecosystem services are shown in the table below.

Indirect Benefits to Humans Direct Benefits to Humans
Supporting Regulating Provisioning Cultural

Primary production
Nutrient cycling
Soil formation
Hydrological cycle
Habitat formation
Pollination
Seed dispersal

Gas regulation
Climate regulation
Disturbance regulation
Biological regulation
Water regulation
Waste regulation
Nutrient regulation
Soil retention
Disease regulation
Flood regulation
Water purification

Food
Fresh water
Raw materials
Genetic resources
Medicinal resources
Ornamental resources

Aesthetic
Recreational
Spiritual
Historic
Scientific
Educational

Adapted from Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005)

There are ecosystem services that are more directly beneficial to humans than others. Provisioning and cultural ecosystem services directly affect society, making them easier to identify and, in some cases, assign value.