This term is commonly used in conjunction with the boundary between natural habitats, especially forests, and disturbed or developed land. Edge effects are especially pronounced in small habitat fragments where they may extend throughout the patch.
When edges are expanded into any natural ecosystem, and the area outside the boundary is a disturbed or unnatural system, the natural ecosystem can be seriously affected for some distance in from the edge. "Eugene P. Odum, professor of zoology, 1971: 'The tendency for increased variety and diversity at community junctions is known as the edge effect.... It is common knowledge that the density of songbirds is greater on estates, campuses and similar settings...as compared with tracts of uniform forest.'" quoted in William T. Vollmann, "Another Roadside Attraction," New York Times Book Review, at 9, February 21 2010. In the case of a forest where the adjacent land has been cut, creating an open/forest boundary, sunlight and wind penetrate to a much greater extent, drying out the interior of the forest close to the edge and encouraging growth of opportunistic species at the edge. Air temperature, vapor pressure deficit, soil moisture, light intensity and levels of photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) all change at edges.
It has been estimated that the amount of Amazonian area modified by edge effects exceeded the area that had been cleared. Forest fires are more common close to edges as a consequence of increased desiccation at edges and increased understory growth present because of increased light availability. Increased understory biomass provides fuel that allows pasture fires to spread into the forests. Increased fire frequency since the 1990s are among the edge effects which are slowly transforming Amazonian forests.
The amount of forest edge is also orders of magnitude greater now in the United States than when the Europeans first began settling North America. Some species have benefited from this fact, for example the Brown-headed Cowbird, which is a brood parasite that lays its eggs in the nests of songbirds nesting in forest near the forest boundary. Thus, the more edge in relation to the forest interior, the more cowbirds and the fewer songbirds as a result.
Another example of a species benefiting from the proliferation of forest edge is poison ivy. Dragonflies eat mosquitoes, but have a more difficult time than mosquitoes do at surviving around the edges of human habitation. Thus, trails and hiking areas near human settlements often have more mosquitoes than do deep forest habitats. But on the whole, edge habitats are better for humans: predators such as bears and wolves will almost never be seen outside a deep forest area. Grasses, huckleberries, flowering currants and shade-intolerant trees such as the Douglas-fir all do well in edge habitats.
In the case of developed lands juxtaposed to wild lands, problems with invasive exotics often result. Species such as Kudzu, Japanese Honeysuckle and Multiflora Rose have done damage to localized natural ecosystems. Beneficially, the open spots and edges provide places for species that thrive where there is more light and vegetation that is close to the ground. Deer and elk benefit particularly as their principal diet is that of grass and shrubs which are only found on the edges of forested areas.
Edge effects also apply to succession, that is where vegetation is spreading outwards rather than being encroached upon. Here different species will be more suited to the edges or central sections of the vegetation, resulting in a varied distribution. Edges themselves also vary with orientation - for example edges on the north or south will receive less or more sun than the opposite side (depending on hemisphere), resulting in differing vegetation patterns.
The phenomenon of increased variety of plants as well as animals at the community junction (ecotone) is also called the Edge effect and is essentially due to a locally broader range of suitable environmental conditions or ecological niches.
Edge effects in biological assays refer to artifacts appearing in data which are caused by the position of the wells on a screening plate rather than a biological effect.
Edge effect in scanning electron microscopy is a phenomenon where a larger number of secondary and/or backscattered electrons are generated on a surface that is not purely horizontal. As the angle relative to horizontal increases, so does the surface area hit by the beam of electrons and therefore the strength of the detected signal increases.