By Ranger Steve Mueller
Importance of Nature Niches
Do you vision a nature niche as a place, process, or both? Many think of a niche as a small nook for displaying an object in the home. In nature, a niche has a different meaning.
Each organism has a unique function in nature that separates it from all other creatures in the community. No organism is able to completely fill another’s role in a habitat or community.
For humans, we refer to a niche as a special role in the community. It may be that of a minister serving a religion’s unique denomination, or the special products provided by a storeowner such as hardware, furniture, or art products. A business may offer unique services such as an auto mechanic, household plumbing, painting, or home remodeling. Farm produce and grocery services are major services for all communities. Some niches are so fundamental that they are maintained as public entities, like water supply, sewage management, and public health.
The simplest description for a nature niche is the function an organism has in the community. If one removes the grocery, the community will starve. If one grocery item is removed, some members of the community may die. When milkweed is removed, monarchs, milkweed tussock moths, milkweed long-horned beetles, milkweed bugs along with some others specialized for milkweed starve and are eliminated from the community. If we continually reduce grocery items, additional species will disappear. At some point we may discover the unknown importance of unique nature niches.
My mother remembers when spring hatches of mayflies were so abundant in the 1920s that snowplows were used to clear bridges of the insects. The roads at rivers were covered so thick that vehicles slid on them like on winter ice. As human communities grew and more chemicals were used to reduce nonhuman life, pollution eliminated good stream conditions for species like trout and mayflies.
Crop production depends on nature niches to recycle nutrients, to pollinate crops, to maintain atmospheric oxygen and soil nitrates. Predators like coyotes keep foxes, raccoons and other animal populations from destroying too many duck nests. Studies show too few coyotes allow other species to become excessive and reduce duck populations. Interestingly, coyotes are not as good at hunting ducks and eggs as foxes or raccoons. We often refer to having coyotes as maintaining a natural balance.
There are no exact natural balances but wild populations increase and decrease based on conditions known as biological and physical limiting factors. Some are physical like last year’s frost that prevented fruit trees from producing apples and cherries. Human disruption of atmospheric gases impacts climate and weather and causes economic and food production impacts. It also has impacts on wild nature niches. We do not understand the role of most species very well or their role in maintaining a healthy world.
From a human view, we have reason to maintain milkweeds. Chemicals from milkweeds were discovered to be useful for treating people with heart ailments. Milkweed chemicals are poisonous but used properly they have become heart medicine. Milkweeds attract many pollinators and sustain wild species between crop flowerings. When we need alfalfa pollinators, milkweeds have helped pollinators survive between alfalfa flowerings. We depend on nature niches. Encourage diverse nature niches to flourish in your yard.
Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the firstname.lastname@example.org or Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.