When we talk about ecology and the environment we usually name the habitats of different species. People often confuse the concepts of habitats, ecosystem and ecological niche easily. And it is that we find numerous species that are geographically distant but, nevertheless, share similar functions within the habitat where they live. This is what is known as ecological niche.
In this article we are going to tell you all the characteristics and importance of the ecological niche and what differences it has with the ecosystem and the habitat.
What is an ecological niche
We know that there are millions of species of birds around the world. Almost all of them fulfill the same functions but cannot mate with each other. On the other hand, we find species that are disparate but perform similar functions in ecosystems. The functions and interrelationships that has an organism with the rest of living beings within the ecosystem is known as an ecological niche. The ecosystem is the area where all the characteristics that make a habitat can be inhabited take place. The easiest example to describe the differences between these three concepts is a forest system, a species of bird has its habitat in the treetops and the relationships they have with other living beings in their environment is the ecological niche.
The ecosystem is the forest, the habitat is the tree canopy and the relationships with other living beings is the ecological niche. It can also be affirmed that it is the way of life of the species in which the conditions, habits, resources that it uses from the environment and the relationships and interactions that they have with other species are included. It also analyzes what type of species are those that form this type of interrelationship.
Let’s see another example to make it clearer. Emperor penguins are a type of bird that has been able to adapt to hunting over the years thanks to the evolution of its body. Therefore, it is capable of hunting in the water at very low temperatures without being damaged. Mainly the food they include in their diet are fish, squid and other crustaceans. The role of this animal is that of a predator, but they are also prey to other animals larger than them, such as killer whales. All these characteristics and relationships between living beings is the ecological niche of the emperor penguins. That is, the relationships that exist between the emperor penguin and other species that share the same ecosystem.
Something that many people frequently ask is what happens if several species share the same ecological niche and are also found in the same geographical area. When this happens, there is a problem and quite serious. This means that the two agencies must compete for resources and territory. Therefore, they cannot survive in the long term within the same habitat. This type of competition is known as interspecific competition. That is, they compete for the same territory, resources, relationships and similar ways of life.
Over time, one of the two species is the one that will prevail over the other. When something like this happens, one of the species ends up disappearing from the ecosystem. Something similar happens with the spread of invasive species, but without being the same. We know that invasive species have a greater capacity to adapt to the environment than a native species. This causes the species that was previously in the ecosystem to be displaced. To the disappearance of the species due to sharing the ecological niche with another it is known by the name of competitive exclusion.
We know that this is not always fixed. There are species that are capable of overlapping a part of their niches and can coexist in the same habitat. However, the relationships between these species are often more hostile. When competitive exclusion occurs, some species can adapt to these conditions and evolve to find another ecological niche that can help them survive. This case occurs more frequently in species that have a varied diet and do not depend on other specific organisms to live. Omnivorous animals usually have a greater capacity to adapt to the environment than other species.
Same ecological niche in different habitats
Now we are going to see the opposite place. That the same ecological niche exists but in different habitats. This occurs when there are vicarious species. They are very similar species that live in geographically separate or opposite places. Many are the questions about why certain animals can live in one place or another and share the ecological niche. It can be answered with the theory of dispersalism. This theory defends that all species are capable of breaking and overcoming geographical barriers that represent a limitation of the territory. A mountain range or an ocean can be the limitation to extend the species the territory. Once the species can find another area to live in, it can colonize it and develop a new species with different evolutionary characteristics that is very isolated from the first.
Another theory that can explain this is vicariousness. The previous phenomenon nest that we have named can occur in another way because of the movement of the tectonic plates. For example, a vast territory coupon species but is divided by a tectonic plate. With the passage of thousands of years the movement of the tectonic plates to separate both plates and the species remained isolated in both parts of the territory. Each species evolves and adapts to the environment but maintains the same ecological niche.
An example of species that share the territory is the rhea and the ostrich. These are animals that have similar characteristics and a similar type of diet. They are usually vulnerable to almost the same predators. We must know that not always two species that share an ecological niche have to be similar or share the same territory. There are times when they share the same ecological niche but are species that belong to a different class.
I hope that with this information you can learn more about the ecological niche and its characteristics.