Niche construction theory: a practical guide for ecologists

Q Rev Biol. 2013 Mar;88(1):4-28. doi: 10.1086/669266.


Niche construction theory (NCT) explicitly recognizes environmental modication by organisms ("niche construction") and their legacy overtime ("ecological inheritance") to be evolutionary processes in their own right. Here we illustrate how niche construction theory provides usedl conceptual tools and theoretical insights for integrating ecosystem ecology and evolutionary theory. We begin by briefly describing NCT, and illustrating how it deifers from conventional evolutionary approaches. We then distinguish between two aspects ofniche construction--environment alteration and subsequent evolution in response to constructed environments--equating the first of these with "ecosystem engineering." We describe some of the ecological and evolutionary impacts on ecosystems of niche construction, ecosystem engineering and ecological inheritance, and illustrate how these processes trigger ecological and evolutionary feedbacks and leave detectable ecological signatures that are open to investigation. FIinally, we provide a practical guide to how NCT could be deployed by ecologists and evolutionary biologists to aeplore ecoeoolutionay dynamics. We suggest that, by highlighting the ecological and evolutionay ramifications of changes that organisms bring about in ecosystems, NCT helps link ecosystem ecology to evolutionary biology, potentially leading to a deeper understanding of how ecosystems change over time.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Ecology / methods*
  • Ecosystem*