Are there a limited number of categories or groupings into which all niches can be classified? I’ll
admit that my first reaction is skepticism. For those ecologists who think of the similarities and generalities across systems, this may be an easier sell, compared to those who get caught up in the complexities of ecological systems. Classifying niches in this way is apparently a vision that distinguished ecologists have voiced: MacArthur: “I predict there will be erected a two- or three-way classification of organisms and their geometrical and temporal environments, this classification consuming most of the creative energy of ecologists.”
|From Winemiller et al. 2015.|
Perhaps because they (and their reviewers) recognized the ambitious nature of this task, the paper helpfully acknowledges the reasons that a periodic table of niches might be a terrible idea right away. Unlike chemistry, ecology is strongly dependent on context, and stochasticity limits generality. The multi-dimensionality of the modern niche concept limits how few axes such a table could be reduced to. Evolution means that classifying a species’ niche is like trying to hit a moving target.
|Examples of convergent evolution are common.|
How then to approach this task? Here the periodic table is rooted in a functional trait approach, where observable phenotypes capture niche information. The dimensions of the table are determined based on what must have been the result of long discussions and much difficulty, but the authors restricted themselves to five essential components: abiotic habitat, life history strategy, trophic position, defense mechanisms, and metabolic allocation strategies.
|From Winemiller et al 2015.|
If you had many different ecologists each develop a ‘periodic table of niches’, each table would be unique, evidence for how difficult drawing general principles and identifying the fundamental ecological dimensions is. Another person might consider dispersal its own dimension, for example, or dismiss defenses. This is especially true because the periodic table presented in this paper is phenomenological, lacking a clear connection with theoretical work, for example. The proof will be in its application and utility – do others adopt it, is it predictive, does it extend our understanding of the niche or improve applications? And I think there is a direction for functional ecology implicit in this work.
Their hearkening to MacArthur makes me wonder what MacArthur would think if he saw ecology today. His prediction that “there will be erected a two- or three-way classification of organisms and their geometrical and temporal environments, this classification consuming most of the creative energy of ecologists” falls short, but not in the ways he might have expected. Here then, is a classification system (and there have been other ideas and versions since his time), but even the 2 or 3 dimensions he generously offers aren't deemed nearly enough to capture ecological diversity. Is the simplicity that MacArthur mentions still considered possible? And I don't think the creative energy of ecologists has been focused on classifying niches in the way he mentions: it is more dispersed amongst topics, and human effects (climate change, fragmentation, habitat loss) have had a dominant role.
Winemiller, Kirk O., Fitzgerald, Daniel B., Bower, Luke M., Pianka, Eric R. 2015. Functional traits, convergent evolution, and periodic tables of niches. Ecology Letters. DOI: 10.1111/ele.12462