Evolutionary Biology Niche Evolution
Alex Pyron
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0075


The evolution of species’ niches is a process that is fundamental to investigations in numerous fields of biology, including speciation, community assembly, and long-term regional and global diversification processes. It forms the nexus between ecological and evolutionary questions. Topics as diverse as ecological speciation, niche conservatism, species coexistence, and historical biogeography all rely on interpreting patterns and drivers of species’ niches through time and across landscapes. Despite this importance, a distinct research agenda concerning niche evolution as a discrete topic of inquiry has yet to emerge. Niche evolution is often considered as a sidebar or of secondary importance when addressing questions such as “how did two species diverge?” Basic questions such as “what is a niche,” “what is the biological basis of niche evolution,” “at what scale should we evaluate niche evolution,” and “how can we observe niche evolution at different timescales” have rarely been addressed directly, or not at all in some systems. However, various intellectual threads connecting these ideas are evident in a number of recent and historical publications, giving some semblance of form to a framework for interpreting and evaluating niche evolution, and outlining major areas for future research from an evolutionary perspective. There is a reverse perspective from the macroecological scale as well, with questions involving coexistence, distributions and ranges, food webs, and other organismal attributes.

General Overview

Niche evolution has rarely, if ever, been addressed in depth as a standalone topic. Instead, much of the conceptual development in literature is intertwined with that of speciation, ecology, and diversification. Mayr 1942 provided the original background material for recent developments, during the Modern Synthesis. Williams 1966 focuses on adaptation at the individual and population level in a theoretical context, providing the necessary background to interpret processes of niche evolution. Schluter 2000 describes the ecological basis of adaptive evolutionary radiations, and how niche evolution drives ecomorphological diversification. Chase and Leibold 2003 is a classic treatise on what a niche is, and how to interpret niche concepts in practice. Odling-Smee, et al. 2003 approaches niche evolution from the perspective of the individual interacting with its environment, and the process of niche construction. Coyne and Orr 2004 covers the various mechanisms that drive speciation, which includes heavy focus on ecological isolation and niche evolution. Losos 2009 is a case study of niche evolution in the classic model-system Anolis. Finally, Peterson, et al. 2011 covers a profusion of methodological approaches to understanding niche evolution.

  • Chase, J. M., and M. A. Leibold. 2003. Ecological niches: Linking classical and contemporary approaches. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226101811.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    A more in-depth look at some of the issues described in this section, including niche concepts and individual, population, and species-level considerations both in an ecological and evolutionary context. This is a fundamental starting place for niche evolution.

  • Coyne, J. A., and H. A. Orr. 2004. Speciation. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of the major overviews of speciation processes, and the ecological factors that can underlie lineage divergence leading to speciation. In particular, chapter 5 (“Ecological Isolation”) details niche-related processes such as habitat, pollinator, and temporal isolation. However, these are considered in a more static context, rather than how they, themselves, evolve over time.

  • Losos, J. B. 2009. Lizards in an evolutionary tree. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520255913.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    For empirical case studies of adaptive niche-evolution, few vertebrate systems have been investigated as fully as West Indian Anolis lizards. Losos reviews and synthesizes available studies, with particular emphasis on climatic and ecomorphological adaptations these lizards have developed to occupy novel niche-spaces.

  • Mayr, E. 1942. Systematics and the origin of species. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    A landmark in evolutionary biology and the study of speciation. Of particular interest here is the focus on geographic variation in species’ attributes such as habitat preference, and how this can lead to population divergence and speciation over time. Importantly, a genetic basis of ecological characteristics, and the accumulation of mutations related to this, is recognized as a key driver of speciation, implicitly via niche evolution. Lacking, however, is an explicit mechanistic link between these concepts.

  • Odling-Smee, F. J., K. N. Laland, and M. W. Feldman. 2003. Niche construction: The neglected process in evolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    As reviewed empirically in other studies cited here, the ability of species to modify their immediate environments and their overall ecological niches is an underappreciated force in the diversification of lineages. The authors review the evidence and implications of niche construction for a broad range of ecological and evolutionary questions.

  • Peterson, A. T., J. Soberon, R. G. Pearson, et al. 2011. Ecological niches and geographic distributions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    A crucial text covering more recent developments in the quantitative analysis of species’ niches, with a particular focus on modeling and predicting species’ niches and distributions using modern computational techniques. Includes background material from many of the references listed in this section with respect to niche concepts, and how niches may change over shorter timescales. In contrast, the authors do not heavily feature a historical perspective, or much address how niche evolution through time affects present-day distributions.

  • Schluter, D. 2000. The ecology of adaptive radiation. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Outlines the ecological basis of rapid speciation in the face of increased ecological opportunity, leading to adaptive radiations. Includes a detailed discussion on the mechanisms of ecological speciation and the basis of niche divergence among species, which is the fundamental unit of niche evolution.

  • Williams, G. C. 1966. Adaptation and natural selection. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    A classic of post-“modern synthesis” evolutionary theory. Describes the epistemological as well as the mechanistic basis of adaptation and natural selection in populations, particularly with respect to ecological aspects. Outlines the multilevel nature of adaptation, which is important when considering niche evolution.

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