The circumstances produced by biotic and abiotic elements of an ecosystem have consequences on how successfully the species can reproduce and obtain essential resources, such as food, water, and shelter, to survive and endure. Predators and food availability are biotic elements that affect a species’ niche. Likewise, temperature, topography, soil nutrients, and other non-living variables are abiotic factors that alter ecological niches. Because each species’ niche is distinct, no two species have precisely the same niche. The niche is a key factor in the preservation of species.
The term “niche” was first introduced by American ecologist Joseph Grinnell in 1917, and he viewed it as largely equal to a species’ habitat. His concept stressed environmental conditions that governed where a species might thrive instead of interaction between species. Since it was first coined, the concept of niche has evolved. Charles Sutherland Elton, an English ecologist, stated that a species’ place in a trophic web was similar to its niche in 1927. According to his definition, a species’ interactions with other species – specifically, its interaction with food and predators – determine its niche. The multidimensional space of resources that a species can access and employ was first described by an English ecologist, George Evelyn Hutchinson, in1958, nearly 40 years later, under the term “niche”. He combined these two definitions into one that was more comprehensive. His theory considers every biotic and abiotic component that can be quantified as influencing a species.
Competitive Exclusion Principle
Two or more species with limited resources and similar resource-use patterns cannot coexist in a stable habitat because one species will be better suited and would outcompete or otherwise exterminate the others. G.F. Gause employed two closely related Paramecium species to conduct the first experimental testing of this theory in 1934. Both species populations exhibited typical S-shaped development curves when developed individually. However, when grown jointly, one species was wiped off.
Components of Ecological Niche
The ecological niche consists of several components that include;
- The environment that an organism lives in
- The organism’s behavior patterns ( Active periods may be diurnal or nocturnal)
- The resources that the organisms draw from the environment (food sources)
- The interaction pattern with other species in the community (predator-prey, host-microbe relationships)
Characteristics of Ecological Niche
The features of an ecological niche are as follows:
- It relies on how a living thing is used and its location in its environment.
- There will be an interspecific competition if two species have equal potential and require the same habitat and resources to survive.
- It encompasses things like how to eat, compete, hunt, and defend.
- An organism’s life cycle, habitat, and position in the food chain are all included in the niche.
- It has a strong connection to its habitat.
- An ecological function, or a mixture of settings, resources, and interactions that a species needs to exist, is essentially its niche.
Abiotic and biotic elements work together to mold an ecosystem’s niche. Natural selection offers the selection of favorable niches by determining the abiotic elements of an ecosystem, such as temperature, climate, and soil type. The species gradually acquires unique characteristics due to time to adapt to the environment. However, biological limitations such as parasitism, competition, and predation may limit the size of their population. Competition among cohabitants for available space, nutrients, and resources results in a species’ population being constrained. Predation and parasitism also limit the population of a species. As these elements alter, ecological niches create and develop.
The process by which natural selection forces the competing species into various resource-use patterns or niches is known as niche partitioning. Three types of niche partitioning exist, namely: spatial, dietary, and temporal niche partitioning. Spatial partitioning occurs when a resource is utilized similarly but in a different physical space. When organisms ingest the same general type of food yet depend on various variants of this food type is known as dietary niche partitioning and utilization of the same resource at various times of the day or year is temporal niche partitioning.
Types of Ecological Niche
According to zoologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson in 1957, ecological niches can be divided into two main categories: Fundamental Niches and Realized Niches.
- It examines the full spectrum of conditions in which a certain species might be able to survive, grow and reproduce.
- It does not take into account biotic ecological interactions like competition.
- Its size is large.
- It emphasizes the various roles of species.
- The particular ecological settings where a species coexists are known as realized niches. It outlines the species’ experiences and how it copes with certain circumstances.
- It takes competition into account along with all other biotic and abiotic ecological interactions.
- Its size is small. It is considered a subset of a fundamental niche. As the realized niche expands, so does the fundamental niche.
- It makes emphasis what the species do.
Niche Overlap: It is the overlapping state where two species use the same resources or other environmental factors. Nonetheless, in many cases, niches only partially overlap because resources are shared.
Vacant Niche: The term vacant itself defines the vacant nature of a niche that is not yet occupied. Environmental disturbances and evolutionary possibilities are thought to be the root cause of it.
Importance of Ecological Niche
- It permits the coexistence of several species, usually without intense competition and under scarce shared resources.
- It facilitates species to be aware of their position in the food chain and ecology.
- The number of niches in an ecosystem defines the number of species present. Thus, they define the variety of the place.
- There would be less biodiversity and an unbalanced ecosystem without ecological niches.
- It helps to comprehend better how communities relate to local environmental factors, fitness, characteristic evolutions, and interactions between predators and prey.
- Ecological niche modeling uses algorithms to process environmental data, contribute to conservation projects, and plan ecological reserves.
The actual significance of ecological niches for an ecosystem cannot be realized until the species that once occupied the niche cease to exist.
Ecological Niche Examples
It is a rare bird whose niche is a jack pine forest that nests on the ground beneath the branches when the tree is about 5 feet tall. However, it won’t nest longer when the lower branches start to die when the tree reaches 16-20 feet tall. Naturally occurring wildfires in this area produced the steady availability of young jack pines for breeding. Human intervention by controlling forest fires severely affected its population. However, setting aside jack pine forest areas for habitat management by harvesting, burning, seeding, and replanting allowed species to rebound.
These feed dung both as adults and as larvae. Dung beetles spin dung into balls that can be used as brooding balls or stored as food and are buried in an underground burrow Females lay eggs in the ball, where larva hatch and develop into adults that dig out of the ball and make their way to the soil surface. These aerate the soul as well as control the fly’s population.
To survive in dry ecological niches, xerophytic plants have evolved several adaptations that include the presence of thick fleshy leaves to store water, long roots to access water deep underground, the ability to fold up their leaves during the dry period, stomatal opening in the night time and closing at day time to prevent water loss during daytime.
Extremophiles are adapted to thrive in hostile environments. It includes acidophiles, thermophiles, barophiles, etc., with some polyextremophiles. Their enzymes are crucial for biotechnological applications.