A Vacant Niche: How a Central Ecological Concept Emerged in the 19th Century

Daniel Gibson-Reinemer

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The niche is a central concept in ecology. The ecological niche has long been viewed as a metaphor (e.g., Haefner 1980), but what has not been fully appreciated about the niche is that it was a metaphor with a long history and particular entailments. Ecologists frequently describe the niche concept as developed independently by Joseph Grinnell, citing his 1917 paper on California thrashers, and Charles Elton, in his 1927 book, Animal Ecology (e.g., Odum 1971, Hutchinson 1978, Real and Levin 1991). Far less frequently, a manuscript on evolution in lady-beetles by Roswell Johnson (Johnson 1910) is credited with first using the term several years before Grinnell. Johnson (1910) wrote, “one expects the different species in a region to occupy different niches in the environment,” and for this, he is credited as the first person to introduce the term to ecology (Gaffney 1973, Hutchinson 1978). Importantly, the niche concept was imprecisely defined in the first decades after it was introduced. Hutchinson (1978) wrote that, although both Grinnell and Johnson used the term niche, they were “never quite clear what sort of unit [the niche] was.” Later, with regard to the competitive exclusion principle, Hutchinson commented that the term niche was still used “without there being a very clear idea as to what the thing was in which the two closely allied species did not coexist” (Hutchinson 1978). A contemporary definition of the niche is “the physical and biological conditions that the species needs to grow, survive, and reproduce” (Cain et al. 2008). This modern view combines the physical conditions emphasized by Grinnell and the biotic interactions emphasized by Elton.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)324--335
JournalBulletin of the Ecological Society of America
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2015


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