In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Niches

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Measuring the Niche

Ecology Niches
Dan L. Warren, Nichole Bennett
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 October 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0056


The concept of the niche is one of the most important ideas in ecology, and yet it is one of the most muddled and confused concepts we have. The niche has been defined and redefined numerous times, with many of these definitions resting on very fine distinctions that are difficult to grasp and sometimes poorly done. The difficulty of measuring the niche in real systems has also led to many operational definitions that are only peripherally related to the more idealized niche definitions that are used in the theoretical development of ecology. For all the confusion and debate it has generated, however, the concept of the niche has been instrumental in the development of the field of ecology, as its multitudinous definitions include almost any interaction an organism may have with its environment.

General Overviews

Given its central role in ecology, any general overview of ecology will of necessity contain much discussion, either directly or indirectly, of the ecological niche. Whittaker and Levin 1975 and Real and Brown 1991 contain many of the foundational papers in the study of the niche in convenient bound editions, coupled with insightful commentary. Schoener 1989 provides an excellent overview of the history of the niche, the different niche concepts, and some of the then-current contributions to the field. Chase and Leibold 2003 is an ambitious attempt to resurrect and revitalize the concept of the niche, using a new mathematical framework that incorporates both a species’ requirements and its impacts on its environment; this is revisited in Chase’s chapter in Scheiner and Willig 2011, a text on the theory of ecology. Holt 2009 gives an excellent overview of developments in the study of the niche since the late 20th century and offers a useful perspective on the state of the field.

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

    Chase and Leibold attempt to bring the niche back to the forefront in ecology. They begin by giving a historical overview of niche concepts and then develop a framework for working with the niche that synthesizes a species’ environmental requirements and its impacts on those environmental factors.

  • Holt, Robert D. 2009. Bringing the Hutchinsonian niche into the 21st century: Ecological and evolutionary perspectives. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, Suppl. 2: 19659–19665.

    DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0905137106

    Holt provides a very broad discussion of the role of Hutchinson’s niche concept in modern ecology, with a particular focus on the relationship between theoretical constructs and empirical studies.

  • Real, Leslie A., and James H. Brown, eds. 1991. Foundations of ecology: Classic papers with commentaries. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    This is a collection of forty of the foundational papers in the field of ecology, including many that are listed in this bibliography. The text also includes background and commentary on these papers by several leading ecologists.

  • Scheiner, Samuel M., and Michael R. Willig, eds. 2011. The theory of ecology. Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    This edited volume contains general chapters on what makes for “constitutive theory” in ecology as well as chapters on the subdisciplines in ecology. Chase’s chapter on niche theory gives the history and various definitions of the niche and synthesizes the implications of the niche concept for ecological theory, especially with respect to studies of competition and coexistence.

  • Schoener, T. W. 1989. The ecological niche. In Ecological concepts: The contribution of ecology to an understanding of the natural world. Papers presented at the 29th symposium of the British Ecological Society, University College, London, 12–13 April 1988. Edited by J. M. Cherrett, 79–113. Oxford and Boston: Blackwell.

    Schoener reviews the history of Grinnell’s, Elton’s, and Hutchinson’s niche concepts as well as the “utilization distribution” concept of the niche, which is more often what is measured in competition studies. Schoener also reviews many of the criticisms of the niche.

  • Whittaker, Robert H., and Simon A. Levin, eds. 1975. Niche: Theory and application. Benchmark Papers in Ecology. Stroudsburg, PA: Dowden, Hutchinson and Ross.

    A compendium of classic papers on both theoretical and empirical studies of the niche.

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