Adaptive plasticity is a predictor of future reproductive fitness. The ability of an organism to confront ever-shifting environmental attributes with resilience and flexibility is critical to maintaining lineages with the capacity to undergo the morphological and behavioral modifications required for continued survival. Regardless if such elastic traits are realized through major swings in ontogenic development, or through the advent of novel life-history strategies, the ability of an organism to accommodate ecological variability is essential. This biological tenet is certainly true today as anthropogenically incited climate change is forcing accelerated rates of ecological alteration.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported that mean global temperatures could increase by more than six-degrees over the course of the next century. Six degrees of global change translates to extremely dramatic transformations of biotic and abiotic conditions at the local level. Even if the ‘worse case scenario’ of six-degrees doesn’t come to pass changes in hydrology, periodic weather, seasonal patterns, emigration, extinction and in the availability of resources at regional and local levels are almost certainly inevitable during the next century. To cope with these changes it will be necessary for organisms to adjust their tolerances to environmental variability, they may need to more-efficiently utilize the resources on-hand, or they may need to physically relocate to habitats for which they are better suited. To better understand how these impending organism-to-environment adjustments will occur, it's important to seek understanding as to how organisms fit into their ecosystem. It is the relative position of an organism in its environment and the way in which it behaviorally responds to its surroundings that is referred to as the organism’s ‘niche’.
With respect to etymology, the word ‘niche’ is derived from the French word ‘nicher’ which literally means ‘to nest,’ as in a bird going to nest. In regards to the word’s use in biology – broadly defined above - this literal translation is very appropriate, because the term was first introduced by an ornithologist in a publication describing the distribution of a bird - the California thrasher (Toxostoma redivivum).
The California thrasher is the largest member of the Mimidae Family and can grow to be uupwards of 30 cm in length and weigh as much as 85 grams. The bird’s coloration is fairly non-descript; its body is brown and it has a tan or buff-colored ventral side. There are however a couple of characteristics that make T. redivivum especially unique. One is the bird's restriction to a very narrow geographic range in California, and another is its habitat preference for densely vegetated brushlands. It was the thrasher’s limited distribution and fondness for the concealment offered by shrubs that first attracted the interest of the celebrated naturalist and scientist Joseph Grinnell.
In the October 1917 issue of The Auk, Joseph Grinnell published his work 'The Niche-Relationships of the California Thrasher'. In that enduring contribution Grinnell explained that the reason for the thrasher’s
“…restricted distribution is probably to be found in the close adjustment of the bird in various physiological and psychological respects to a narrow range of environmental condition.”
In other words, Grinnell clearly recognized that the bird’s morphological and behavioral traits linked it to the specific ecosystem that it inhabited. Furthermore, Grinnell identified that
“[t]hese various circumstances, which emphasize dependence upon cover, and adaptation in physical structure and temperament thereto, go to demonstrate the nature of the ultimate associational niche occupied by the California Thrasher.”
In Grinnell’s mind, the relative position of the thrasher in its environment, as well as its distinctive behaviors, established a general rule that could be extrapolated and used as a tool for detailing and predicting the spatial and temporal relationships held between organisms and their environments. The ‘niche’ would quickly become a tool for not only itemizing individual life-history traits, but also for interpreting the evolutionary and adaptive implications of the organism-to-environment dynamic.
Building on his idea of an ecological niche, in July of 1924 Grinnell went on to publish ‘Geography and Evolution,’ a work in which he fathered what are contemporarily known as the competitive exclusion principle and the concept of ‘vacant niches.’
“Some of us have concluded that we can usefully recognize, as measures of distributional behavior, the realm, the region, the life-zone, the fauna, the subfauna, the association, and the ecologic or environmental niche. The latter, ultimate unit, is occupied by just one species or subspecies; if a new ecologic niche arises, or if a niche is vacated, nature hastens to supply an occupant, from whatever material may be available. Nature abhors a vacuum in the animate world as well as in the inanimate world.”
The competitive exclusion principle is the idea that two species occupying the same habitat and fighting for the same resources will not obtain equilibrium until one species overcomes, or out-competes, the other. These ideas are front-and-center to modern biology and are both credited to Grinnell.
Serving as the founding father of the ‘niche’ was but one of Joseph Grinnell’s numerous contributions to science. Over the next couple of days I hope to post more of Grinnell’s work, as well as that of his modern counterparts that are – literally – following in Grinnell’s footsteps in hopes of gaining insight into how the observations of an early 20th Century scientist can be used to decode the effects of climate change in a 21st Century world.
UPDATE: The second part of this post available HERE.
Joseph Grinnell (1917). The Niche-Relationships of the California Thrasher The Auk, 34 (4), 427-433
Joseph Grinnell (1924). Geography and Evolution Ecology, 5 (3), 225-229
Wednesday: Hili dialogue
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