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Community Ecology
Niche theory and guilds
Click here for supplemental materials for today (PDF)
1. Definition of niche: response functions vs. resource utilization functions
A. Grinnell: emphasis on a species’ "place" (more than just locational)
B. Elton: emphasis on a species’ role
C. Hutchinson: emphasis on resources used by species
i. n-dimensional hypervolume
ii. fundamental vs. realized niches
iii. ecological release
2. So how can species coexist? Answer: niche partitioning
A. Limiting similarity
B. Character displacement
i. the Hutchinsonian 1.3 size ratio
3. Niche vs. guild vs. functional group
limiting similarity
functional niche
1.3 character size ratio
n-dimensional hypervolume
functional group
R.B. Root
empty niche
realized niche
niche differentiation
character displacement
ecological release
Joseph Grinnell (1914) to denote a species’ "place" in the environment (i.e., set of
environmental conditions that meet a species’ life-history requirements)
Difference between niche and habitat
Chas. Elton (1927) emphasized the role of a species in the environment
Gene Odum’s distinction between an organism’s “address” (habitat) and its “profession”
Do empty niches exist?
G. Evelyn Hutchinson (1957)
"n-dimensional hypervolume"
1. fundamental (pre-interactive) niche - potential niche
2. realized (post-interactive) niche - actual niche
Example from Orians and Willson (1964) involving Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius
phoeniceus) and Yellow-headed Blackbirds (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus)
“Ecological release” – mongoose example
Ecological niches can thus be defined in terms of:
-response functions: how species are distributed on environmental gradients with respect to
limitation and optimal performance (a physiological view, prevalent among plant ecologists),
i.e., a species’ response to the environment (Whose ideas follow this?)
-resource utilization functions: how species use resources (Whose ideas follow this?)
So if a niche can only be occupied by one species, but if resources are limited such that
competitors must share niche space, how similar in terms of niche can two species be and still
coexist? The competitive exclusion principle states that coexistence hinges on niche
differentiation (a.k.a. niche partitioning).
Consider the words of Gause (1934), when discussing the competitive exclusion principle: "
a result of competition two species hardly ever occupy similar niches, but displace each other in
such a manner that each takes possess of certain kinds of food and modes of life in which it has
an advantage over its competitor." This is niche partitioning.
But since most organisms are rare and secretive, how do we observe this? We usually do so only
indirectly, via morphology (Ricklefs and Travis 1980; see handout):
limiting similarity
character displacement
Hutchinsonian size ratio
Robert MacArthur (1958) examined niche overlap in a group of five sympatric warbler species
(Bay-breasted, Myrtle, Blackburnian, Cape May, and Black-throated Green) in New Hampshire
that were the same size and ate the same arthropod species in the same tree!: if they were so
similar, how could they coexist?
- found that the birds partitioned the niche space physically
Similar but distinct terms:
Guild Functional group -
NOTE: the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences vol. 106 suppl. 2 (2009) has a
special colloquium devoted to the niche concept.
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Gause, G.F. 1934. The Struggle for Existence. Williams and Wilkins, Baltimore, MD.
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Grinnell, J. 1914. An account of the mammals and birds of the Lower Colorado Valley with
especial reference to the distributional problems presented. University of Colorado Publication in
Zoology 12:51-294.
Grinnell, J. 1917. The niche-relationships of the California Thrasher. Auk 34:427-433.
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Review of Entomology 34:423-451.
Holbrook, S.J., and R.J. Schmitt. 1995. Compensation in resource use by foragers released from
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Biology 22:415-427.
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