Habitat, environment and niche: what are we modelling?



The terms ‘habitat’, ‘environment’ and ‘niche’ are used inconsistently, and with some confusion, within the ecological literature on species distribution and abundance modelling. Here I suggest interrelated working definitions of these terms whereby the concept of habitat remains associated with descriptive/correlative analyses of the environments of organisms, while the niche concept is reserved for mechanistic analyses. To model the niche mechanistically, it is necessary to understand the way an organism's morphology, physiology, and especially behaviour, determine the kinds of environment it experiences when living in a particular habitat, and it is also necessary to understand how those environmental conditions affect fitness (growth, survival and reproduction). While distributions can potentially be predicted by modelling descriptions or correlations between organisms and habitat components, we must model an organism's niche mechanistically if we are to fully explain distribution limits. A mechanistic understanding of the niche is also critical when we want to predict an organism's distribution under novel circumstances such as a species introduction or climate change.