Niche construction is the process whereby organisms, through their activities and choices, modify their own and each other’s niches. Examples of niche construction include the building of nests, burrows, and mounds and alternation of physical and chemical conditions by animals, and the creation of shade, influencing of wind speed, and alternation of nutrient cycling by plants. Here the “niche” is construed as the set of natural selection pressures to which the population is exposed (discussed in Ecology). By transforming natural selection pressures, niche construction generates feedback in evolution, on a scale hitherto underestimated and in a manner that alters the evolutionary dynamic. Niche construction also plays a critical role in ecology, in which it supports ecosystem engineering and eco-evolutionary feedbacks and, in part, regulates the flow of energy and nutrients through ecosystems. Niche construction theory is the body of formal (e.g., population genetic, population ecology) mathematical theory that explores niche construction’s evolutionary and ecological ramifications. Many organisms construct developmental environments for their offspring or modify environmental states for other descendants, a process known as “ecological inheritance.” In recent years, this ecological inheritance has been widely recognized as a core component of extra-genetic inheritance, and it is central to attempts within evolutionary biology to broaden the concept of heredity beyond transmission genetics. The development of many organisms—and the recurrence of traits across generations—has been found to depend critically on the construction of developmental environments by ancestors. Historically, the study of niche construction has been contentious because theoretical and empirical findings from niche construction theory appear to challenge some orthodox accounts of evolution. Many researchers studying niche construction embrace an alternative perspective in which niche construction is regarded as a fundamental evolutionary process in its own right, as well as a major source of adaptation. This perspective is aligned intellectually with other progressive movements within evolutionary biology that are calling for an extended evolutionary synthesis. In addition to ecology and evolution, niche construction theory has had an impact on a variety of disciplines, including archaeology, biological anthropology, conservation biology, developmental biology, earth sciences, and philosophy of biology.
A number of general introductions to niche construction theory are available. The essays by Lewontin 1983 and Lewontin 2000 and articles by Odling-Smee, et al. 1996; Donohue 2005; and Laland, et al. 2016a provide brief and accessible introductions to the topic, as well as to some of the issues that niche construction raises for evolutionary biology (i.e., extra-genetic inheritance, the role of acquired characters, and understanding adaptation). Odling-Smee, et al. 2003, the first book on the topic, provides a more technical treatment for professionals and advanced students. Sultan 2015, a monograph on organism and environment, provides an excellent, authoritative, and, as of the mid-2010s, the most recent treatment of organisms as dynamic systems interacting with their environments. A special edition of Evolutionary Ecology (Laland, et al. 2016b) provides a recent collection of articles on niche construction, whereas Niche Construction, the niche construction website, provides a useful online resource.
Donohue, K. 2005. Niche construction through phenological plasticity: Life history dynamics and ecological consequences. New Phytologist 166:83–92.
A good illustration of the roles that niche construction can play in plants.
Laland, K. N., B. Matthews, and M. W. Feldman. 2016a. An introduction to niche construction theory. In Special issue: Niche construction. Edited by K. N. Laland, B. Matthews, and M. W. Feldman. Evolutionary Ecology 30.2 (April): 191–202.
A more up-to-date, but nonetheless accessible, introduction to niche construction, illustrating the issues at the heart of the debate. The article provides definitions, brief overviews of the empirical and theoretical literature, and discusses the contribution of niche construction theory to expanded notions of inheritance and an extended evolutionary synthesis.
Laland, K. N., B. Matthews, and M. W. Feldman, eds. 2016b. Special issue: Niche construction. Evolutionary Ecology 30.2 (April).
This special issue includes ten articles on niche construction, on topics ranging from homeostasis, parental care in burying beetles, the evolution of cooperation, repertoire size in songbirds, social niche construction, and domestication in plants and animals.
Lewontin, R. C. 1983. Gene, organism and environment. In Evolution from molecules to men. Edited by D. S. Bendall, 273–285. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.
An accessible essay from one of the founders of niche construction theory that introduces the niche construction perspective and raises concerns about conventional evolutionary approaches to adaptation. It is historically important in drawing attention to the fact that organisms are not passive recipients of selection but actively shape the selection that acts on them.
Lewontin, R. C. 2000. The triple helix: Gene, organism and environment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
Another readable introduction to the niche construction perspective by the pioneer of this way of thinking. Lewontin rejects the notion that genes, organisms, and environments are separate entities, with genes determining the organism, which then adapts to the environment; rather, these entities are all inextricably interwoven and causally interdependent.
An accessible electronic resource, this website presents the niche construction perspective; illustrates its application in a number of fields, including evolutionary biology, ecology, philosophy, and the human sciences; and discusses criticisms of niche construction theory. It also provides an extensive bibliography. Available online.
Odling-Smee, F. J., K. N. Laland, and M. W. Feldman. 1996. Niche construction. The American Naturalist 147.4: 641–648.
A brief, but nontechnical, introduction to niche construction for evolutionary biologists. This work is significant as the first major article to introduce the concept of ecological inheritance.
Odling-Smee, F. J., K. N. Laland, and M. W. Feldman. 2003. Niche construction: The neglected process in evolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.
An authoritative, rigorous, and extensive technical introduction to niche construction theory. This monograph reviews the history of the topic, provides definitions, documents the empirical evidence for niche construction, summarizes population genetic analyses, describes the contributions of niche construction to ecology and the human sciences, and discusses experimental and theoretical methods.
Sultan, S. E. 2015. Organism & environment: Ecological development, niche construction, and adaptation. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
An important and authoritative monograph that integrates niche construction theory with contemporary research on developmental plasticity.
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