Introduction to Ecological Codes

Almo Farina

The ecological complexity of natural systems is based on the interactions between landscapes, ecosystems, communities, populations and individuals. Most of these interactions operate according to a thermodynamic gradient (1), whereas others are characterized by a neg-entropic regime (2), dramatically increasing flux of information (3) and distance from a high-probability state of entropic configurations (4).
At first sight, a complex system is perceived as a complicate one, but this is a misleading effect largely due to a lack of understanding of the rules that govern the relationships between its component parts. Such rules are sequences of ecological codes that are used to connect at least two interacting subjects.
Like all organic codes (5) the ecological codes can be defined as mechanisms that establish an arbitrary set of connections between two or more components (organisms and/or their aggregations) of a complex system. The ecological codes are the tools that organisms use in everyday life in order to relate themselves with the external world. Ecological codes are visual, acoustic, tactile, chemical and cultural and exist at every scale of the living organization.
More functions require more ecological codes, which results in more possibilities for organisms to interact with their perception of the external environment or Umwelt, sensu von Uexküll (6,7), and finally to benefit for resources (8).
The ecological codes classify external objects and process analog gradients as discrete meaningful digital units. In birds, for example, the distance from a safe place is transformed into discrete-distance-units, each associated to a specific habit (e.g. stay confident, quickly escape, alerting, etc.). Such transformations are performed by cognitive code-makers and produce codes that are incorporated into the genetic or the cultural reservoir of every organism.
To understand an ecological code is necessary to start from a specific function that in turn is activated by a specific physiological need. For every function there is a dedicated code sequence that guides such function to tracking the resource requested to satisfy a specific need. For instance, the need to assume food is performed by a predator by using a search image of the prey as a result of which the right prey is selected and every other organism is excluded. An insectivore bird, for example, has a codified (cognitive) image of the prey that suits it.
A food specialist has a restricted repertoire of “cognitive templates”, which allows it to save energy, whereas a generalist has a more broad collection of templates and wastes much energy in random attempts. The dance of honeybees is an example of codification about food source and abundance.
The acoustic codes are units of informational acoustics carried out by special organs (e.g. syrinx in the birds, vocal cords in humans) with specific sequences to produce meaning (alarm calls, song, contact call, etc.).
More complex codes are required to optimize the search for resources. In addition to the codes for recognizing a prey, for example, there are codes for identifying the suitable environment in which to search for a prey. To every resource it is associated a spatial configuration that is a carrier of meaning – see the theory of the eco-field (9) – that must be recognized.
Today, the degradation of the ecological codes and the changes in the environmental conditions in which codes have evolved produced by land degradation and overexploitation are crucial issues in the challenge to preserve biodiversity and the associated ecological processes.


(1) Odum H.T. 1983 – Systems Ecology : an Introduction. John Wiley & Sons, New York.  
(2) Schrödinger, E. 1944 – What is Life? Cambridge University Press.  
(3) Reza, F.M. 1961 – An introduction to information theory. Dover, New York.  
(4) Ulanowicz, R.E 1997 – Ecoloy, the ascendant perspective. Columbia University Press, New York.  
(5) Barbieri, M. 2003 – The Organic Codes. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.  
(6) von Uexküll, J. 1982 (1940) – The theory of meaning. Semiotica, 42(1), 25–82.
(7) von Uexküll, J. 1992 (1934) – A stroll through the worlds of animals and men. Semiotica, 89(4), 319–391.
(8) Farina, A. 2012 – A Biosemiotic Perspective of the Resource Criterion: Toward a General Theory of Resources. Biosemiotics (2012) 5:17–32.
(9) Farina, A., & Belgrano, A. 2006 – The eco-field hypothesis: toward a cognitive landscape. Landscape Ecology, 21, 5–17.