In this first of three papers we examine the use of niche concepts in ecology and especially in species distribution modelling (SDM). This paper deliberately focuses on the lack of clarity found in the term ‘niche’. Because its meanings are so diverse, the term niche tends to create confusion and requires constant qualification. The literature houses many idiosyncratic ideas of what the niche is, but few examples where niche is more explanatory than the terminologies of population and community ecology or the statistical methods used to implement SDM analyses. In many cases the original (and inspirational) concepts are not directly applicable to our modern applications (e.g. set theory). There are some conceptual limitations found in individual definitions of niche (e.g. the fundamental niche concept), so it is perhaps understandable why more neutral terminology is becoming popular in SDM. An examination of the literature reveals a wide range of uncritical use of niche terminology. Our findings in this paper do not necessarily support the position of niche as a universally useful concept.