An ecoregion (ecological region) is an ecologically and geographically defined area that is smaller than a bioregion, which in turn is smaller than an ecozone. All three of these are either less or greater than an ecosystem. Ecoregions cover relatively large areas of land or water, and contain characteristic, geographically distinct assemblages of natural communities and species. The biodiversity of flora, fauna and ecosystems that characterise an ecoregion tends to be distinct from that of other ecoregions. In theory, biodiversity or conservation ecoregions are relatively large areas of land or water where the probability of encountering different species and communities at any given point remains relatively constant, within an acceptable range of variation (largely undefined at this point).
Three caveats are appropriate for all bio-geographic mapping approaches. Firstly, no single bio-geographic framework is optimal for all taxa. Ecoregions reflect the best compromise for as many taxa as possible. Secondly, ecoregion boundaries rarely form abrupt edges; rather, ecotones and mosaic habitats bound them. Thirdly, most ecoregions contain habitats that differ from their assigned biome. Biogeographic provinces may originate due to various barriers. Some physical (plate tectonics, topographic highs), some climatic (latitudinal variation, seasonal range) and some ocean chemical related (salinity, oxygen levels).
The history of the term is somewhat vague, and it had been used in many contexts: forest classifications (Loucks, 1962), biome classifications (Bailey, 1976, 2014), biogeographic classifications (WWF/Global 200 scheme of Olson & Dinerstein, 1998), etc.
An ecoregion is a "recurring pattern of ecosystems associated with characteristic combinations of soil and landform that characterise that region". Omernik (2004) elaborates on this by defining ecoregions as: "areas within which there is spatial coincidence in characteristics of geographical phenomena associated with differences in the quality, health, and integrity of ecosystems". "Characteristics of geographical phenomena" may include geology, physiography, vegetation, climate, hydrology, terrestrial and aquatic fauna, and soils, and may or may not include the impacts of human activity (e.g. land use patterns, vegetation changes). There is significant, but not absolute, spatial correlation among these characteristics, making the delineation of ecoregions an imperfect science. Another complication is that environmental conditions across an ecoregion boundary may change very gradually, e.g. the prairie-forest transition in the midwestern United States, making it difficult to identify an exact dividing boundary. Such transition zones are called ecotones.
The use of the term ecoregion is an outgrowth of a surge of interest in ecosystems and their functioning. In particular, there is awareness of issues relating to spatial scale in the study and management of landscapes. It is widely recognized that interlinked ecosystems combine to form a whole that is "greater than the sum of its parts". There are many attempts to respond to ecosystems in an integrated way to achieve "multi-functional" landscapes, and various interest groups from agricultural researchers to conservationists are using the "ecoregion" as a unit of analysis.
WWF (World Wildlife Fund) ecologists currently divide the land surface of the Earth into 8 major ecozones containing 867 smaller terrestrial ecoregions (see list). The WWF effort is a synthesis of many previous efforts to define and classify ecoregions. Many consider this classification to be quite decisive, and some propose these as stable borders for bioregional democracy initiatives.
Ecoregions are classified by biome type, which are the major global plant communities determined by rainfall and climate. Forests, grasslands (including savanna and shrubland), and deserts (including xeric shrublands) are distinguished by climate (tropical and subtropical vs. temperate and boreal climates) and, for forests, by whether the trees are predominantly conifers (gymnosperms), or whether they are predominantly broadleaf (Angiosperms) and mixed (broadleaf and conifer). Biome types like Mediterranean forests, woodlands, and scrub; tundra; and mangroves host very distinct ecological communities, and are recognized as distinct biome types as well.
n 2007, TNC and WWF refined and expanded this scheme to provide a system of comprehensive near shore (to 200 meters depth) Marine Ecoregions of the World (MEOW). The 232 individual marine ecoregions are grouped into 62 marine provinces, which in turn group into 12 marine realms, which represent the broad latitudinal divisions of polar, temperate, and tropical seas, with subdivisions based on ocean basins (except for the southern hemisphere temperate oceans, which are based on continents).
A freshwater ecoregion is a large area encompassing one or more freshwater systems that contains a distinct assemblage of natural freshwater communities and species. The freshwater species, dynamics, and environmental conditions within a given ecoregion are more similar to each other than to those of surrounding ecoregions and together form a conservation unit. Freshwater systems include rivers, streams, lakes, and wetlands. Freshwater ecoregions are distinct from terrestrial ecoregions, which identify biotic communities of the land, and marine ecoregions, which are biotic communities of the oceans.