Mobile version
spiked plus
About spiked
What is spiked?
Support spiked
spiked shop
Contact us
Summer school
Top issues
Arab uprisings
British politics
Child abuse panic
For Europe, Against the EU
Free speech
Jimmy Savile scandal
Parents and kids
View all issues...
special feature
The Counter-Leveson Inquiry
other sections
 Review of Books
 Monthly archive
selected authors
Duleep Allirajah
Daniel Ben-Ami
Tim Black
Jennie Bristow
Sean Collins
Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
Frank Furedi
Helene Guldberg
Patrick Hayes
Mick Hume
Rob Lyons
Brendan O’Neill
Nathalie Rothschild
James Woudhuysen
more authors...
RSS feed

abc def ghi jkl mno pqrs tuv wxyz index
Survey home
Survey responses
RSS feed
Anjana Ahuja
Julian Baggini
Philip Ball
Marlene Oscar Berman
Gustav VR Born
K Eric Drexler
Marcus Du Sautoy
Edmond H Fischer
John Hall
Tim Hunt
Wolfgang Ketterle
Leon Lederman
Matt Ridley
Raymond Tallis
Frank Wilczek
Lewis Wolpert
Dr John Whitfield
Science writer, author and blogger

The greatest innovation in ecology is the concept of the niche, as developed by Evelyn Hutchinson in the late 1950s. An ecological niche is like a cross between a job and an address. It describes where a species lives, in terms of, say, the temperatures it can tolerate, or the amount of water it needs, and also what it does - the food it eats, whether it migrates or hibernates, and so on.

Hutchinson, who was born in the UK but spent most of his career in the US, proposed that niches can explain biodiversity - why there are, say, 50-odd species of butterfly in the United Kingdom, and not 5000, or five. Every species, he suggested, has a unique niche, and if two species are too similar, one will drive the other extinct. In this picture, diversity is the result of species evolving to occupy different niches: bats and birds both eat insects, for example, but do so at different times; giraffes and gazelles both browse leaves, but at different heights on the tree. The total amount of resources in an ecosystem - the size of the niche space - and the sizes of the differences between species controls what can live there.

Ecologists still wrestle with niche theory, and have suggested many other possible explanations for the origin and maintenance of biodiversity. Some environments seem too homogenous for niches to explain their diversity: Hutchinson pointed to the many species of plankton that can coexist in a single lake. Others seem too diverse - is there really a unique niche for each of the several hundred tree species in a single hectare of rainforest? But in formulating the problem, and suggesting a possible answer, Hutchinson was one of the main forces in moving ecology from being a science that described nature to one that tried to explain it.

He was also a brilliant mentor, inspiring many students who went on to become influential researchers, and acting as midwife to a golden age of his science. 

Book suggestion: ‘In the Beat of a Heart: Life, Energy, and the Unity of Nature’ (Joseph Henry Press) http://www.inthebeatofaheart.com gentraso.blogspot.com   In the Beat of a Heart: Life, Energy, and the Unity of Nature (Joseph Henry Press).