The Formal Structure of Ecological Contexts

The ecological literature distinguishes between two ways of conceiving a “niche” (habitat, ecotope, biotope, microlandscape) [22, 39]. On the one hand, there is the traditional functional conception of a niche as the role or position enjoyed by an organism or population within an ecological community. As C. Elton [14] famously put it, “When an ecologist says ‘there goes a badger’ he should include in his thoughts some definite idea of the animal’s place in the community to which it belongs, just as if he had said ‘there goes the vicar’.” The world of niches might, in this sense, be viewed as a giant evolutionary hotel, some of whose rooms are occupied (by organisms which have evolved to fill them), some of whose rooms are for a variety of reasons unoccupied but can become occupied in the future. On the other hand, there is the environmental conception advanced by G. E. Hutchinson [19] and R. Lewontin [21]. On this second conception, a niche is thought of as the hypervolume defined by the limiting values of all environmental variables relevant to the survival of a given species. A niche is not a mere location, but a location in space that is defined additionally by a specific constellation of ecological parameters such as degree of slope, exposure to sunlight, soil fertility, foliage density, and so on. It is, we might say, an ecological context. The purpose of this paper is to outline a formal theory of this notion. Our account expands on the theory put forward in [30], which builds upon certain fundamental notions and principles of mereology, topology, and the theory of spatial location. We focus on niche tokens, which is to say on the environmental niche determined by a given organism or population of organisms in a given place, and we aim to be more explicit than is customary in the ecological literature as concerns the..
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