Chapter

Handbook of Evolutionary Thinking in the Sciences

pp 547-586

Date:

The Ecological Niche: History and Recent Controversies

  • Arnaud PochevilleAffiliated withDepartment of Philosophy, University of Sydney Email author 

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Abstract

In this chapter, we first trace the history of the concept of ecological niche and see how its meanings varied with the search for a theory of ecology. The niche concept has its roots in the Darwinian view of ecosystems that are structured by the struggle for survival and, originally, the niche was perceived as an invariant place within the ecosystem, that would preexist the assembly of the ecosystem. The concept then slipped towards a sense in which the niche, no longer a pre-existing ecosystem structure, eventually became a variable that would in turn have to be explained by the competitive exclusion principle and the coevolution of species. This concept, while more operational from an empirical point of view than the previous one, suffered from an ill-founded definition. A recent refoundation by Chase & Leibold enabled to overcome some of the definitional difficulties.

We then present how, in contemporary ecology, the niche concept is recruited to explain biodiversity and species coexistence patterns. In parallel, neutralist models, by successfully explaining some ecological patterns without resorting to explanations in terms of niche, have questioned the explanatory virtues of the niche concept.

After this presentation, it seems that the fortunes and misfortunes of the niche concept can be seen as a reflection of the difficulties of ecology to give birth to a theory that would be both predictive and explanatory.

Keywords

Ecological niche Neutral theory Coexistence theories Competitive exclusion principle Scales