9 junio, 2024

Ecological niche: definition, types and examples

What is the ecological niche?

The ecological niche is the set of strategies that a living being uses to survive and the resources it uses to achieve it. This includes how they feed and how they avoid predators, which determines what role the species plays in the ecosystem.

In general, the ecological niche includes everything with which a species is related to live, both its food sources, as well as its possible predators and all useful resources for it. Also the abiotic conditions that the species requires, that is, the temperature and humidity, among others.

The competition for resources that develops between species during their evolution causes each one to specialize. Therefore, each species fits into the ecosystem using a certain part of the resources.

Some consume only vegetables and among these, there are those that only eat leaves and other fruits. While other species consume meat and there are those that consume everything. Thanks to this specialization where each species produces its ecological niche, so many different species can live in the same habitat.

Types of ecological niches

George E. Hutchinson established two fundamental types of ecological niches, the so-called potential niche and the actual niche.

Fundamental or potential niche

It is a theoretical niche, that is, it starts from ideal conditions for a given species. It is the place that a species can occupy in an ecosystem if there is no interference from other species.

Under these conditions, the niche of the species can become much broader. This is because the resources it requires to survive are all available and it lacks predators.

Species introduced into another habitat, called exotics, almost reach their potential niche. For example, when the human being consciously or accidentally takes a species to a habitat that is not its natural one. If the species adapts to that habitat, it finds that it has many resources and perhaps no competitors or predators.

Real niche or realized niche

This is the ecological niche that the species actually occupies, that is, its real natural world. This ecological niche is limited by the competition it has with other species for resources (interspecific competition).

This includes the predators that stalk it, the food that it really has, the water, that is, all the resources that it requires.

The actual niche is the result of the adaptive capacity of the species and the biological interactions it faces. Such as competition, predation, parasitism, and disease.

Differences between ecological niche and habitat

The ecological niche has to do with the ways of feeding and avoiding becoming food, as well as the resources used by the species. While the habitat refers to the environment where the species develop, the spatial area or physical place where they carry out their activities.

This environment, which constitutes the habitat of the species, meets certain conditions to which the species has adapted. Therefore, in the same habitat there are various ecological niches occupied by different species.

For example, in the jungle (habitat) there are hunting carnivores like the jaguar and herbivores like the capybara. In turn, these two species live on the ground, while others, such as the howler monkey (frugivore) and the harpy eagle (carnivore) live in the trees.

In the same way, a species that occupies a certain ecological niche can exist in different habitats. This depends on their greater or lesser ability to adapt to different environmental conditions. For example, white-tailed deer can occupy the forest or the prairie, two different habitats.

Other species such as the opossum can live in very varied habitats, from a jungle, through a savannah, to a city. This depends on the adaptation capacity of each species.

The range of variation of possible habitats for a species can be very wide or extremely narrow. However, the ecological niche of the species is normally narrow, except in a few cases.

A hunting carnivore, in general, it will remain so regardless of the variety of habitats it comes to occupy. An exceptional case is the human being, who, given his omnivorous condition (eats everything) and rational capacity, is capable of occupying various ecological niches.

Examples of ecological niches

ecological niche of the lion

The lion’s habitat is air-terrestrial, it lives in the African savannah and the niche it occupies is that of a hunting carnivore. It is considered at the top of the food chain in the African savannah because it has no predators. Its only predator is the human being and not for food reasons.

Giraffe’s ecological niche

The giraffe also lives in the air-terrestrial environment in the African savannah and its niche is that of a herbivorous animal. Specifically, it browses, that is, it consumes the leaves and fruits of the trees, especially the acacias that inhabit the savannah. Therefore, the most accurate thing is to call it a folivore, that is, a leaf consumer.

Ecological niche of the zebra

Like the giraffe, the zebra occupies an air-terrestrial habitat in the African savannah and likewise its niche is that of a herbivore. But unlike the giraffe, the zebra eats the grasses that grow on the savannah floor.

ecological niche of the bat

Bats are a very diverse group of flying mammals in terms of habitats and ecological niches. Depending on the species, they can live in jungles, forests, savannahs and even in cities, always active at night and hiding in caves or dark places.

While they occupy niches ranging from frugivorous (fruit-eating), insectivorous (insect-eating) to fishermen (fish-eating carnivores). There are even hematophagous, that is to say that they consume blood, the so-called vampires.

Ecological niche of the Kingfisher

Several species of birds that inhabit the air-terrestrial environment and feed on fish that they catch on the fly are called Kingfishers. That is to say, its ecological niche is that of carnivorous fishing birds.

ecological niche of the whale

Whales are large aquatic mammals of the cetacean group, therefore their habitat is the ocean. While its niche is that of carnivores that feed on marine animals. However, the group of whales is varied, there are baleen whales and toothed whales.

Baleen whales, like the blue whale, feed by swallowing large amounts of water, which they then expel and filter into their baleen. In this way they capture thousands of krill, a tiny crustacean that is part of the zooplankton. While the toothed ones like the sperm whale capture and devour fish and even large marine animals such as the giant squid.

Ecological niche of the shark

The name shark is given to many species of cartilaginous fish, all inhabitants of the oceans, although some venture into large rivers. Almost all sharks occupy the niche of large marine predators.

They are voracious carnivores and hunt fish and all kinds of marine animals within their reach. However, there is one species of shark (the largest of all), which only feeds on plankton, it is the whale shark.

Ecological niche of the dung beetle

This insect lives in various places, but in general it is about savannahs and meadows and there are different species. The ecological niche it occupies changes as it develops.

Thus, its larvae are coprophagous in the first stage (consumes excrement), and then emerge and dig to consume roots, that is, they are herbivorous. There are other species that are scavengers or necrophagous, that is, they consume the remains of dead animals.

Ecological niche of the chimpanzee

Chimpanzees are very interesting animals because of their close evolutionary relationship with our species, in fact they are our sister species. These animals occupy an air-terrestrial habitat in the jungles of the Congo, roaming the jungle floor and also the trees.

Its ecological niche is that of an omnivorous animal, although its main food is fruits and shoots, they also consume insects and small animals.

Ecological niche of the human being

We are a species with a very wide habitat range, being able to adapt the environment to our needs. On the other hand, like our sister species the chimpanzees, we are omnivores, being the biggest predators on the planet. We consume almost everything, we grow it, we raise it, we hunt it or we fish it to consume it.

References

Calow, P. (Ed.) (1998). The encyclopedia of ecology and environmental management. Blackwell Science. Margalef, R. (1974). Ecology. Omega Editions. Odum, E.P. and Warrett, G.W. (2006). Fundamentals of ecology. Fifth edition. Thomson. Purves, WK, Sadava, D., Orians, GH and Heller, HC (2001). Life. The science of biology. Whittaker, RH 1970. Communities and ecosystems. Macmillan, New York.

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