Difference between “Habitat” and “Niche”

Habitat and Niche are an important part of an ecosystem. They help in describing the interaction of an organism with its environment, including both biotic and abiotic agents. Ecology is the study of these interactions.

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Habitat and Niche are closely related terms having a thin line of difference. Niche is the specific role any particular species plays in an ecosystem. Niche mainly describes how a species contribute to the energy flow of the system, how it gains energy and supplies it further in the system, e.g. if the species is a producer or consumer etc. whereas Habitat is the physical place where any particular species lives and adapts to the environmental conditions, e.g. mountains or grassland, etc.

Habitat is a part of an ecosystem whereas niche plays an important role in forming an ecosystem. Habitat is the “address” whereas Niche is the “profession”.

Difference between Habitat and Niche

The table below shows the main difference between habitat and niche

Habitat

Niche

A habitat is a particular place where organisms live, i.e. address

A niche defines a particular role played by organisms in an ecosystem, i.e. profession

Habitat is not a species-specific and many species can occupy the same habitat

Niche is a species-specific and it supports only a single species

Habitat consists of several niches

Niche is specific to a particular species, which may overlap with a similar niche but must have distinct differences

Habitat is a superset of niche

Niche is a subset of habitat

Examples: desert, ocean, mountains, grassland, forest, etc.

Examples: different trophic position occupied by Darwin’s finches

Definition of Habitat

A habitat is a place or area where a species grows, lives or thrives. Temperature, sunlight, rainfall, types of soil, etc. and other abiotic factors determine the presence of organisms present in an area. These factors prevailing in an area determine the best-suited species for that environment.

Habitat is the best-suited condition for a species and provides ideal conditions for a species to grow, adapt, reproduce and flourish.

It is the energy or nutrient providing area for an organism. Habitat of a species describes the totality of abiotic factors to which the species is exposed in the area.

Examples of habitat include desert, ponds, freshwater lake, ocean, mountains, grassland, forest, etc.

Definition of Niche

Joseph Grinnel coined the term “Niche”. He described a niche as the distributional unit specific to each species. He emphasised that no two species living in the same territory can occupy the same ecological niche for long.

The ecological niche not only involves the physical space occupied by an organism but it also describes the functional role or place of a species in its community structure. This includes everything related to how it influences a community, i.e. what it eats, where it lives, what it does, the trophic position occupied, etc. Niche describes how a species contributes to the energy flow of the system, how it gains energy and supplies it further in an ecosystem.

There are three aspects of an ecological niche:

  1. Spatial or habitat niche: It accounts for the physical space occupied by an organism. This explains the different microhabitat owned by several species having identical general habitat.

    E.g. seven species of millipedes reside in the same general habitat of the forest floor of a maple oak forest and all are decomposers, i.e. occupy the same trophic level but predominate in their specific microhabitat that is created by several gradients in the decomposition stage.

  2. Trophic Niche: It tells about the functional role or trophic position occupied by a species. It explains how different species share the same habitat but occupy different trophic niches.

    E.g. Darwin’s finches of Galapagos islands. These birds belong to the same genera and live in the same general habitat but differ in their eating habits, i.e. trophic position. One species is vegetarian feeding on buds and fruits and others are insect eaters, feeding on insects of different sizes. There is a woodpecker finch, which has a wood-pecking beak.

  3. Hypervolume or multidimensional niche: It represents the position of a species in the environmental gradient. There are a large number of environmental factors, both abiotic and biotic, that affect the population. This is the fundamental niche of the species and refers to the totality of abiotic and biotic factors to which a given species is uniquely adapted.

Niche is specific to a particular species, no two species can fill the same niche. The two similar niches can overlap but there must be distinct differences to avoid competition for the same resources.

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