Ecologists talk about habitat and niche when referring to living organisms and their environment. While the two terms seem similar, they mean slightly different things.
At its simplest, a habitat is a home. The habitat definition in biology refers to location in the natural ecosystem an organism resides in. The habitat definition can further be described as the place organisms usually live, eat and breed in.
Habitat encompasses the geographic location plants or animals live in, combined with varying nonliving or abiotic features such as landscape, slope, water, etc. A habitat meets the needs of its denizens for their survival.
Habitats grouped together form an ecosystem, a community of organisms that interact with their environment and other species within it.
Types & Examples of Habitats
There are many examples of habitats in the world. Some land-based habitats include tundra, grassland, mountain ranges and forests. Numerous aquatic habitats exist as well. They include saltwater marshes, intertidal zones and the deep sea.
However, it is not uncommon for habitats to seem in contrast to the natural world. For example, some organisms can thrive in a parking lot or in the field of a farm. Additionally, some organisms may make more than one habitat in their lifetimes. A good example of this is when migratory birds travel to vastly different environments and climates to breed or winter.
Habitats are dynamic places that change at varying rates. The plants and animals that reside in habitats are adapted to them. So any rapid changes can cause problems for those species with special adaptations only suited to a particular habitat.
Adaptations to Habitats
Animals and plants possess special adaptations to the habitats in which they live.
For example, in cold regions such as the Arctic Circle, many animals possess thick fur or a significant amount of body fat to help insulate them from the frigid environment.
Camouflage represents another adaptation used by animals to adapt to their habitats. When animals can blend into their environments, they are less visible to predators.
Habitat vs. Niche
In ecology, habitat and niche refer to two separate terms. The habitat definition above refers to the unique place an organism lives. Niche, however, is a more nuanced term ecologists use when referring to organisms interacting in an ecosystem.
In ecological terms, a niche is the manner or role in which organisms fit into their respective ecosystems. Over time, ecologists have come to an agreement that a niche cannot have two species playing the same role within it. This is often due to competition for resources.
Sometimes this very scenario leads to extinction, but not always. Over time, two competing species could eventually evolve slight differences and therefore new niches.
Ecologists look at factors such as food, temperature, prey size, moisture, and so on in their analyses. Using two or three of these factors, ecologists can figure out how a species will respond to their environment. This refers to the fundamental niche of a species.
Understanding both habitat and niche aids scientists in their quest to find ways to help conserve species.
The Impacts of Habitat Fragmentation
Conservationists work to preserve plants, animals and other organisms within their natural habitats. To monitor the condition of various habitats, conservationists assess their biogeographical level as well as their risk of collapse.
One of the goals of ecologists is to study how the destruction and degradation of ecosystems affects species diversity. As human populations and development increase, habitats become broken up or fragmented.
Habitat loss and fragmentation, in turn, leads to a drop in species diversity. One example would be the Brazilian Atlantic forest, which has been deforested for farming and timber.
Chopping up a habitat into smaller, disconnected “islands” leads to more edge environments, fewer places for plants and animals to live and decreased biodiversity. Studying the habitat and niche of a species can help conservationists find ways to protect species for the future.
About the Author
J. Dianne Dotson is a science writer with a degree in zoology/ecology and evolutionary biology. She spent nine years working in laboratory and clinical research. A lifelong writer, Dianne is also a content manager and science fiction & fantasy novelist. Dianne features science as well as writing topics on her website, jdiannedotson.com.