5 Ways to Make Ecological Niches a More Approachable Topic

Akanksha Saxena

Introduction: Ecological Niches

The topics in ecology primarily deal with an organism, its interrelationships with other organisms in a community, and the type of environment that sustains its life, growth, and reproduction. Thereby the subject of ecological niches gains prominence. An ecological niche encompasses all the roles that an organism plays in a community set-up. Since an organism’s endurance and survival strategies are dependent upon both biotic interactions and abiotic factors like physical and environmental conditions, studying these topics becomes vital for a better understanding of the subject.

Teachers educate about topics like ‘how an organism adapts to a particular environment’, ‘why a population dies off after shifting it away from its growth habit’, ‘differences between fundamental and realized niches’, ‘how certain physical features of organisms are related to specific environmental conditions’, or ‘how acclimation can expand and affect the boundaries of a niche’usually struggle a lot in delivering their rationale to the students in classroom teaching. 

We, at Labster, understand how the complexities of this subject can trouble teachers and educators in delivering effective classroom lessons. Since these topics require a lot of introspection and self-question-answering sessions, even students at high school and university/college level find it vexing to deal with on their own. 

This article can provide some real help as it attempts to identify the major blocks encountered by students whilst studying this topic. It also lists practical solutions that teachers and educators can incorporate while teaching the same in their next class. By the end, we’ll convince you why a virtual lab simulation will prove useful not only for your students but also for you as an educator to deliver concepts more efficiently.

Ecological niches: Choose the right Kuppelfang to bring to Earth! GIF

Figure: A GIF from Labster's Ecological Niche simulation. It is available for University/College classes.

3 reasons why Ecological Niches can be tricky to teach or learn

There are 3 reasons why students dread and confuse the topic of ecological niches. Acknowledging these blocks is the first step toward making the topic more approachable. 

1. It feels philosophical

Ecology is best understood when field trips are the core methodology of teaching, theoretical delivery of ideas about ecological niches, their types, community relationships, processes like adaptation and acclimation and many more in a classroom set-up tend to become monotonous and non-conducive for students. Imbibing information related to these topics portrays a grave challenge to students. The difficult terminologies further serve as downers.

2. It seems of no commercial or practical value

Students find the idea of the environment and organisms’ optimization strategies to be of no practical individualistic utility. Living in a modern world of ‘consumer culture’, the very premise of environmental thinking sounds absurd to new learners. This isn’t just a problem with students but even educators are at a bad diagonal since the society at large is shaped in such a way. We may be unsure as to why a plant, animal, bacteria, fungi, or virus are essential for our survival. This paucity of knowledge compulsively and ignorantly drives us to equate environmental lessons to their commercial and monetary values. This eventually undermines the subject’s essence and makes it sound abstract and impractical.

3. It calls for a lot of introspection and requires complete racking of one’s brain

Conventionally designed curricula don’t quote enough examples or employ situation-based analogies for simplification of ecological concepts. Under such a situation, even teachers tend to directly dictate the definitions of various terms like niche, fundamental niche, realized niche, etc, and leave it up to the students to rack their brains behind them. 

5 ways to make Ecological Niches a more approachable topic to understand

In order to address the blocks encountered while teaching this topic, educators can engage the under-listed solutions in their classes. These can decode many different aspects of the ecological importance of niches. Not only can they make teaching easier for educators like you but will also make lessons clearer and easier to assimilate for your students.

1. Explain with examples

Incorporation of examples like that of kuppelfangs in the Ecological Niche simulation provided by Labster can be a constructive way to build concepts. We list some of the ways in which you can endeavor on this journey.

  1. Explaining differences between acclimation and adaptation: While acclimation is a fast process, adaptation is a slower process. While the former works at an individual organism’s level to develop changes in the body that make it more suitably adjusted to its changing environment, the latter works at the genotypic level and is only reflected after some generations of testing and standardization.

Example: In order to simplify this for your students, try to use the example of kuppelfangs as used in the Ecological Niche simulation. Since suddenly shifting kuppelfangs from their ecological niche in Astakos IV to biodome on Earth didn’t leave any time for them to adapt or acclimatize, this rock-digesting species succumbed to unanticipated environmental conditions of Earth. 

Using such an example in your class can help students in remembering concepts with clarity.


 Figure: A snippet from the Ecological Niche simulation by Labster to educate your students about ecological niches. It is available for University/College classes.

  1. Explaining differences between fundamental and realized niche: While fundamental niche is the entire wider set of conditions under which a species can thrive and reproduce, realized niche on the other side is the subset of those conditions that are ‘actually utilized’ by the given species from a real-world standpoint. 

Example: Now, educators can explain this using the example of populations of wolves and coyotes that inhabited the same region in North America a few decades ago. Since these 2 species share a ‘competitive relationship’ for food resources (hunting the same prey), the realized niche for both of them was smaller than the expected fundamental niche. Now, for explaining ‘how niche boundaries expand or contract’, you can quote the example of active wolf hunting that began after European settlements in the region. According to a report by The WashingtonPost, the active hunting pushed the wolves’ population to near-extinction in the area which conferred opportunity to the coyotes’ population to ‘expand their niche boundary’. On top of this, the threatened wolf started mating with coyotes. The offspring came to be known as “COYWOLFS”.Using such an example-driven approach, you can simplify the concept of Ecology for your students and maintain a vibrant decorum in your teaching sessions.

Figure: Coywolf- An interbreed of wolf and coyote. A perfect display of how coyotes expanded their niche boundary and wolves ensured their escape from extinction. They “MATED”. Image Source: https://www.facebook.com/PBSNature/photos/how-did-this-new-hybrid-emerge-see-the-full-meetthecoywolf-infographic-here-http/10153723954530510/?_rdr

2. Step out of the class and take more field trips

Taking more field trips is always recommended while teaching Ecology topics. It is a more engaging and fun-filled way of delivering ideas and information. When students look around and connect with the different phenomena, it’s bound to make space in their core memory. Even to explain the techniques for quantification of realized and fundamental niches, it is important that your students understand ‘how 2 different species can share the same niche’. Field trips can be a good opportunity for students to become more observant of nature and relate classroom lessons to nature’s functioning.

3. Connect dots to simplify terminologies

Plainly stating terminologies like niche boundary, hypervolumes, environmental variables, etc in your ecology class might hurt the aims and objectives of the subject. Help bring essence to each of these terminologies so that students can connect the dots and land on the exact meaning without cramming the bookish definitions.

Example- Teachers can engage their students in a small activity where they are made to imagine that they own a little alien pet of their own.  Now, since this alien has lived in an exclusive niche on some other planet, ask your students what requirements it would have to survive on Earth.

  1. Explain how it had a defined set of biotic (interactions with other organisms) and abiotic (air, water, light, etc) factors for which its body was properly adapted and optimized. Now, in order to keep the alien pet healthy at your home, the alien must expand its “niche boundary”. Can this happen at once or needs time or “n” number of generations? These are some questions that require critical thinking and can help in connecting the dots between niche boundary, acclimation, adaptation, and environmental variables. 

  2. In order to explain the concept of hypervolumes, teachers can factor in 3 or 4 environmental variables like food, light, and music. Let’s say the alien needs an optimal amount of these 3 variables. Anything above or below that optimal amount reduces its fitness. So, although the alien can survive and reproduce under a wide range of these variables, its fitness depletes at both extremes (high/low; high food consumption, low food consumption, and likewise). As the number of environmental variables increases, the hypervolume niche of the alien becomes more defined and comes to be called “n-dimensional hypervolume”. If your students want to keep their alien pet healthy, the quantification of this hypervolume can help in optimizing the variables for it.

In such a way, connecting dots between different terminologies can help educators deliver quality and effective lessons on the topic of ecological niche.

Ecological niches2

Figure: A snippet from the Ecological Niche simulation by Labster to educate your students about hypervolume quantification. They can actively engage with the gamification tools provided in it to build a 3D graph.  It is available for University/College classes.

4. Storytelling using real-life experiences of ecologists in picture

The subject has developed due to the concerted efforts of many scientists (ecologists) in this field. Telling stories about their research works and expeditions can gather your students’ interest in the subject. Usually, human beings need to feel connected to a subject to explore more about it. Without a connection, pursuing any course can make the process look dull and unexciting.

Example: You can quote the example of Joseph Grinnell. He was one of the first ecologists who developed the idea of ecological niche while studying California Thrashers (Toxostoma redivivum), a distinct type of Californian bird. Grinnell explained the restricted distribution of this bird as a manifestation of its defined physiological and psychological behaviors that are closely linked to the narrow range of environmental conditions. This made Grinnell explain that ecological niches are mostly defined by abiotic environmental factors and not the biotic interactions/factors.

Figure: Joseph Grinnell was one of the first ecologists to develop the idea of “ecological niche”. He primarily related it to the environmental variables while studying the California Thrashers (Toxostoma redivivum). Image Source: https://www.slideserve.com/vivian/niche-concepts

Figure: Joseph Grinnell. Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Grinnell

You can use examples of more ecologists like Charles Elton who proposed the idea of ecological niche to be majorly defined by biotic factors in contrast to Grinnell’s hypothesis.

Such storytelling can help your students to think over the different possibilities in science. This can be intellectually empowering for them as no preconceived notions need to drive their scientific journey and exploration.

Ecological niches 4

Figure: A snippet from the Ecological Niche simulation by Labster to educate your students about the environmental variables that help define an ecological niche. Your students can actively engage with the gamification tools provided in it.  It is available for University/College classes.

5. Use virtual lab simulations

Since field trips can’t be taken every day and with a dearth of visualization tools at hand, the subject of ecological niches can turn both boring and complex for students. Rather than struggling with how to deliver the lecture more efficiently, we at Labster encourage modern-day educators to make the most of the Ecological Niche simulation. It takes your students into a virtual world where they can understand how ecological niches are defined, how their boundaries are set, how different organisms adapt and acclimatize to environmental variables, and much more. We further simplify the hypervolume quantification methodologies and make it more lucid for your young learners. 

With virtual laboratory simulations from Labster, teachers can make more insightful points as students are rendered with better visual options where they can follow the different concepts in a free-flowing manner. 

Your students don’t have to struggle anymore as our interactive Ecological Niche simulation along with gamification elements come to their rescue. By using this way of an active and immersive teaching, our virtual learning platform takes an advent in the field of science to make the upcoming scientists thorough with the “basics of their respective subjects”. 

You can learn more about the Ecological Niche simulation here or get in touch to find out how you can start using virtual labs with your students.

Ecological niches 3

Figure: A snippet from the Ecological Niche simulation by Labster to educate your students about ecological niches. It is available for University/College classes.

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