Ecological Niche: Definition, Meaning, and Examples

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Ecological Niche Definition

A niche is a hole, hollow, or recess, especially in a wall, in the broadest meaning. In biology and ecology, however, a niche refers to (1) the specific region in which an organism lives, (2) the role or function of an organism or species in an ecosystem, or (3) the interaction of a species with all the biotic and abiotic variables that impact it.

Ecological Niche Etymology

Niche (plural: niches) is derived from the Old (and current) French niche, from nichier, which means “to construct a nest,” and is derived from the Latin nidus, or nest.

What is Ecological Niche?

The interaction of a species with all of the biotic and abiotic parameters impacting it is referred to as an ecological niche. However, the concept of niche has evolved throughout time. In 1917, Joseph Grinnell invented the word niche, which he used to describe what is essentially a species’ habitat. Charles Sutherland Elton considered niche to be equal to a species’ location in a trophic web in 1927.

The word niche was coined by George Evelyn Hutchinson in 1958 to define the multidimensional space of resources available to and utilised by a species. Despite the various definitions of niche, it is now widely accepted that it refers to how an organism or a population responds to and changes in competition and resource distribution. It describes an organism’s or a population’s location in relation to other organisms or populations in a given environment.

An ecosystem’s biotic and abiotic variables may have an impact on a niche. However, a species’ niche in a specific ecosystem will influence the characteristics of its habitat, as these characteristics are critical to its existence.

Niche vs Habitat

In ecology, a habitat is the location where an organism or a biological population typically lives, resides, or occurs (or is adapted to do so) (s). A forest, a river, a mountain, or a desert might be the setting. While habitat refers to a physical location, a niche refers to a species’ interaction with ecosystem components. An organism’s niche describes how it lives and survives in its environment.

As a result, a habitat may include numerous niches and be able to support a variety of species at any given moment. The concept of niche refers to a single species as part of a habitat, with all of its biological activity affected by biotic and abiotic variables. Predators, rivals, parasites, commensals, and other living and non-living elements might potentially determine an organism’s niche.

Niche Formation

Abiotic and biotic elements work together to define an ecosystem’s niche. Abiotic variables in an ecosystem, such as temperature, climate, and soil type, aid in the formation of niches, whereas natural selection determines which niches are preferred and which are not. Over time, the species acquires unique characteristics that aid in their adaptation to their surroundings. They might flourish and live-in environments that match their characteristics if they fit in.

Biological limitations, such as predation, competition, and parasitism, may, nevertheless, limit the size of their colonies. Because co-habitats compete for available nutrients, space, light, and other important resources, competition in a habitat might limit a species’ population. Depending on the number of predators and the amount of predation, predation might potentially limit the population of a species.

The existence of parasites that use the species as a host, as well as the sensitivity to disease-causing infections, are all factors that might limit the population of a species. As these elements alter, niches in an ecosystem develop and evolve.

Niche Partitioning

Because niches are species-specific, niche partitioning is described as the process by which natural selection drives competing species into distinct niches. There can’t be two species in the same niche at the same time. However, coexistence may aid competing species in establishing their own ecological niches. They must be able to cohabit in order to minimise competing for limited resources, such as through resource differentiation (or niche partitioning). Otherwise, natural selection will favour one of the two competing species, while the other will eventually go extinct.

In the absence of competition, a species’ core niche is defined as its niche. A realised niche, on the other hand, is the niche that a species has occupied as a result of pressures, such as the introduction of a competing species into its environment. When two species use the same resources or other environmental factors, this is known as niche overlap. Because resources are shared, niches frequently overlap only partially.

In an environment, an empty niche is one that has yet to be filled. The presence of an empty niche, on the other hand, is still a point of contention. Nonetheless, environmental disturbances (for example, forest fires and droughts) and evolutionary events are thought to be plausible sources of empty niches (i.e., when species fail to evolve).

Niche Examples
i. Niche of Beavers

Beavers (genus Castor) are semi-aquatic, nocturnal rodents. Dams, canals, and hotels are among their many accomplishments. The water flow in the river where they dwell might change as a result of this activity, altering both biotic and abiotic elements of their habitat. Other animals living in the watershed may be influenced by the beaver’s role in shaping the ecological characteristics of their surroundings.

ii. Niche of Flightless Dung Beetle

Circellium bacchus, the flightless dung beetle, fills a distinct ecological niche. They eat animal droppings and store them in burrows as dung balls. The eggs are deposited within the dung ball so that when the larvae emerge, they will already have food supplies. The dung beetle’s feeding habits help aerate the soil and reintroduce nutrients back into it.

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