What is a Niche?

Bee collecting pollen. Getty/Jason Hosking

A niche is a term that is used in ecological biology to define an organism's role in an ecosystem. Not only does a niche include the environment a given organism lives in, it also includes the organism's "job" in that environment. A niche may also encompass what the organism eats, how it interacts with other living things or biotic factors, and also how it interacts with the nonliving, or abiotic, parts of the environment as well.

All living organisms have what is called a fundamental niche. This is all of the possibilities available for the organism to take advantage of. All possible sources of food, all open roles in the environment, and any suitable habitat are included in a fundamental niche.

In reality, an organism is not going to use all suitable resources in an environment at the same time. Instead, an organism will have a narrower range it will use. This more specific role is called the organism's realized niche.

Symbiotic relationships also come into play to determine an organism's niche. Predators that are in the area can limit an organism's niche and particularly where it can find safety and shelter. Competitors will also limit food sources and other nutrients needed, so they can also have an affect on where an organism makes its home. An organism may also seek out other species to have positive interactions with in order to define its niche.

Commensalism and mutualism with other species in the area can make an organism's life easier.

Abiotic factors, such as water availability, climate, weather, and in the case of plants, soil types, and amount of sunlight can also narrow a fundamental niche to a realized niche. An organism can somewhat adapt to their environment, but the basic needs must be met first in order for them to have time to find their niche.

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Scoville, Heather. "What is a Niche?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 12, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-niche-1224492. Scoville, Heather. (2017, April 12). What is a Niche? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-niche-1224492 Scoville, Heather. "What is a Niche?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-niche-1224492 (accessed February 20, 2018).