Ed Golson Outdoor Education

niche

All living things play a role in the environment. The role a specific organism has is called its niche. It is often said that if an organism's habitat is its address, then its niche could be called its job description. For example, a maple tree's habitat is usually a forest. You might think that a maple tree's role is just to sit there and grow, but in reality, its niche is much more than that. Just think of all the roles a maple tree can have:

· Making seeds that can be eaten by hungry animals

· Providing a food source for termites and other insects

· Providing a place for birds to search for insects to eat

· Providing a place for birds to build nests and seek shelter

· Shading animals on a hot day

· Shading out plants on the forest floor to keep them from growing

· Letting go of dead leaves each year that will eventually become nutrient rich soil

The list could go on and on. All these roles added together equals the tree's niche.  A lot of different organisms rely on the maple tree for either food, shelter, or both. If the maple tree was killed and no other tree came along to fill that niche, a lot of organisms would suffer.

When two or more organisms in the same area try to share the similar niche competition occurs. There just isn't enough resources in the environment for different organisms to be doing the exact same job. The more similar the niches are, the stronger the competition will be. If the competition is too strong, one of two things can happen: either the organisms adapt to find a slightly different niche, or one species "wins" the competition and the other one gets pushed out of the environment completely.  

Sometimes it may seem as if two organisms really do share the same niche in an environment. However, close examination can show slight differences in their roles. Those differences may be just enough to reduce competition. A classic example of this concept can be shown by looking at the feeding habits of birds that eat insects off of trees.

A scientist once noticed that there were several different types of birds searching for insects on a single tree. At first it appeared as though this situation would be creating very strong competition between the birds.  Upon closer observation , however, he noticed that the birds were in fact not competing as much as he had thought. The birds had split the tree up into sections and they only searched for insects in their section. One type of bird searched for insects on the very top of the tree. Another searched in the middle branches. Another type searched on the lower branches. Another type only searched for insects right on the trunk of the tree. By looking for food in different places, the birds ensured that they had niches that were different enough to avoid direct competition. This splitting of roles in order to reduce competition is called resource partitioning.

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