Scientists Say: Niche | Science News for Students

Scientists Say: Niche

A term in ecology, it’s how an organism fits into its community
Feb 11, 2019 — 6:30 am EST
eagle with fish

In this community, the bald eagle is a predator and the fish is its prey. 

BrianEKushner/iStockphoto

Niche (noun, “NITCH”)

In ecology, this is the “job” or role an organism plays in its community. A description of a niche will include the plants, animals and other living things an organism interacts with. But all the parts of an organism’s life are part of its niche — where it lives, what it eats and what eats it. When a fox preys on a rabbit, the fox’s niche is predator. The rabbit’s niche is prey. The hole in the ground the fox calls home is also part of its niche. If the fox has fleas, then part of its niche involves being a host to those parasites. Every organism in a community — from a forest to a cave to the ocean to your own belly button — has its own niche.

In a sentence

Dinosaurs may have taken advantage of a big extinction event to take over many niches left open in the environment.

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Power Words

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dinosaur     A term that means terrible lizard. These ancient reptiles lived from about 250 million years ago to roughly 65 million years ago. All descended from egg-laying reptiles known as archosaurs. Their descendants eventually split into two lines. For many decades, they have been distinguished by their hips. The lizard-hipped line are believed to have led to the saurichians, such as two-footed theropods like T. rex and the lumbering four-footed Apatosaurus (once known as brontosaurus). A second line of so-called bird-hipped, or ornithischian dinosaurs, appears to have led to a widely differing group of animals that included the stegosaurs and duckbilled dinosaurs. But a new 2017 analysis now calls into question that characterization of relatedness based on hip shape.

ecology      A branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. A scientist who works in this field is called an ecologist.

environment     The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature and humidity (or even the placement of things in the vicinity of an item of interest).

extinction     The permanent loss of a species, family or larger group of organisms.

forest     An area of land covered mostly with trees and other woody plants.

host      (in biology and medicine) The organism (or environment) in which some other thing resides. Humans may be a temporary host for food-poisoning germs or other infective agents.

niche     A small or narrow pocket that sets something apart, or perhaps offers a region of protection. (In ecology) The role that an organism plays in its community.

organism     Any living thing, from elephants and plants to bacteria and other types of single-celled life.

parasite     An organism that gets benefits from another species, called a host, but doesn’t provide that host any benefits. Classic examples of parasites include ticks, fleas and tapeworms.

predator     (adjective: predatory) A creature that preys on other animals for most or all of its food.

prey     (n.) Animal species eaten by others. (v.) To attack and eat another species.