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What Are Ecosystems, Habitats, and Niches?

heidi Kent, Joshua Anderson
  • Author
    heidi Kent

    Heidi has taught middle school science, health, and English for more than 22 years. She has a Master's Degree in General Science from North Dakota State University. She is a member of the MSTA, has chaired Professional Development and Continuing Education at the Ashby Public School.

  • Instructor
    Joshua Anderson
Learn about the differences between an ecosystem, habitat, and a niche. Study habitat and niche examples in the Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem and learn factors that affect population density. Updated: 02/04/2022

Ecosystem, Habitat, and Niche

The terms ecosystem, habitat, and niche are all related to each other but are not the exact same thing.

  • An ecosystem is the interaction between all of the biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) factors within a geographic area. Ecosystems vary a great deal in size, location, and the amount of diversity within them. They are dynamic places made of interrelated and interacting factors.
  • A habitat is the natural home or place within an ecosystem that provides the kind of food, water, shelter, and living space an organism needs to survive. Habitats are areas that are suitable dwellings for different groups of organisms. For example, there are forest habitats, desert habitats, grasslands, marine, mountainous, etc.
  • A niche is the special role an organism plays within its ecosystem or the very specific conditions it takes advantage of. Niches have a lot to do with how an organism gets its life essentials such as food, water, shelter, etc. Different species of organisms do not typically ever occupy the same niche within their ecosystem. When each species occupies its own specific niche, there is minimal competition for the same resources.

A habitat is a place where an animal or organism lives. An ecosystem is a place that also takes into account the interactions of living organisms with themselves and their surrounding environment. Ecosystems can be made up of smaller ecosystems and can be large enough to encompass many different habitats. However, they can also be a very small part or consist of just one kind of habitat. A niche is the unique role or job an organism plays within its ecosystem. The photograph below shows a wetland habitat. As an ecosystem, there are biotic factors (plants and animals) that will interact with the abiotic factors such as soil, water, and weather. Because the living organisms have different living habits, they will not occupy the same niche.


The plants and animals are biotic factors within this ecosystem that interact with abiotic factors such as soil, water, and weather. The living organisms coexist because they have different habits and do not occupy the same niche of their wetland habitat.

Photograph of duck and turtle at pond edge.


The Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem

Location of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem
Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem

This is Kiki the lion. Kiki is a female African Lion that lives in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. The Masai Mara is a national park whose mission is to preserve and protect the northern part of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. You may remember that an ecosystem is composed of all organisms and all abiotic factors within a geographic location.

The Serengeti-Mara ecosystem contains a stunning array of animals, including vast herds of wildebeest, zebras and Thompson's gazelles and smaller populations of elephants, rhinos, giraffes, crocodiles, warthogs, hyenas and over 470 species of birds - not to mention all of the lizards, snakes, insects and other smaller animals. And yes, it also includes a population of lions, as well as populations of other big cats like leopards and cheetahs.

The Serengeti-Mara ecosystem also includes all of the plant life in the area. After all, what would all of the wildebeest and zebras eat if there wasn't an abundance of grasses, and how would the giraffes survive if there were no acacia trees providing leaves for them to eat? And what about all of the abiotic factors, otherwise known as nonliving environmental factors like climate, elevation, soil type and sources of water?

These are all a part of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem too. All of these aspects of an ecosystem are contained within a specific geographic location. In the case of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, the geographic location contains parts of Northern Tanzania and Southern Kenya just east of Lake Victoria.

Okay, so by now you're probably beginning to realize how huge and complex an ecosystem can be. But let's go back to Kiki, our lion. Although Kiki is a part of this vast ecosystem, there are likely going to be areas that are suitable for Kiki to live in and areas that are not. A habitat is an area that is suitable for a particular organism to live in. In Kiki's case, her habitat is the grassy plains and open woodland, or savanna, of sub-Saharan Africa.

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The Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem: Habitat and Niche Examples

The Serengeti-Mara ecosystem is a useful representation showing the habitats, niches, and the interactions of the abiotic and biotic factors within it.

The Serengeti-Mara is a large open and wooded grassland savanna habitat located in east-central Africa in Tanzania and southern Kenya. Its climate is seasonal tropical with temperatures ranging from 15 degrees C (59 F) to 27 degrees C (81 F). It is dry most months of the year with seasonal rains occurring from March to May and November to December, totaling from 21-41 inches of rain depending on location. The soil of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem is mostly volcanic ash-based, which makes it ideal for supporting a variety of grasses. Fire is another disturbance that keeps the more nutrient-rich and diverse grasslands healthy. These are some of the abiotic factors within this ecosystem to which its living organisms have had to adapt.

The animals and other life within the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem each have a specific role or niche they occupy. Each one has slightly specialized needs regarding food, water, space, and shelter needs with matched capabilities to obtain them.


Note the grassland habitat of the foreground and the thin line of trees. Lions hunt the herds of wildebeests as they graze on the short grasses available for a short time.

Photograph of Serengeti grasslands with lions hunting a large herd of wildebeest.


Animal Niche

All organisms require a living space or habitat that provides for their survival needs. There are countless kinds of species, habitats, and ecosystems on the earth, but within any habitat, each species interacts within it in its own unique and specific way. This specific role or job an organism plays within its ecosystem is called its niche. Species in a given ecosystem typically do not share niches. Organisms that have the same exact needs within an ecosystem will compete with each other, often until one dies off or changes enough that it no longer competes. In healthy ecosystems, the niches of each organism replenish or make way for others to succeed as well.

The niche an animal occupies is determined by its living habits: How, what, when, and where it eats and/or where it takes shelter, raises young, or finds water, etc. The herbivores (plant eaters) that graze on the Serengeti each have their own specific preferences of food. As they migrate around their habitat, wildebeests tend to eat the short grasses. However, zebras, gazelles, antelopes, and other grazers will each prefer herbs, shrubs, leaves, or long grasses. Giraffes are able to access food that others are unable to reach. Since each type of herbivore has its own niche, they are not competing for the same plant resources.

The predators on the Serengeti also have their own niches. Both lions and cheetahs are big cat carnivores (meat-eaters) that hunt big game within the same geographic area. However, their hunting styles and prey are different enough that they do not compete for the same food source. Lions, as shown in the earlier savanna photograph, are bigger and hunt big prey like the wildebeest. The cheetah uses its speed to hunt fast, smaller prey like antelope or gazelles. Each species of big cat has its own niche.


Niches

Now we know what Kiki's habitat is, and we know that she is a part of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, but how does she fit into the ecosystem? Being a lion, Kiki is a predator, which means that she hunts and kills other animals for food. But simply being a predator doesn't completely explain how Kiki fits into the ecosystem. There are lots of different types of predators that live in different areas of the ecosystem and eat lots of different types of animals. What we are trying to determine here is Kiki's niche, or the role that she plays in her ecosystem.

Lions are big game hunters of the open grasslands. The animals that they hunt most often are wildebeest and zebras, but they'll take down even larger animals like immature water buffalo and young giraffes if they get an opportunity. The lion hunting style is to ambush and overpower, usually as a group.

All of these details help to define the niche of a particular species. Organisms carve out their own unique niches that they specialize in, and it is extremely unusual to find two organisms with the same exact niche, so let's take a look at how Kiki's niche is different from some other similar predators of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem.

First, let's take look at the cheetah, which is another big cat predator that shares the same habitat with lions: the open grasslands. However, cheetahs have a different niche because they usually hunt smaller, faster animals like gazelles, rabbits, young warthogs, etc. They also have a different hunting style, which is to use their speed to run down the quick animals that they hunt. Because of these differences, lions and cheetahs have different niches and can coexist in the same habitat.

Similar animals with different hunting styles and prey have separate niches in the ecosystem
Ecosystem niches

Leopards are another big cat predator that live in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. Their food source overlaps with both lions and cheetahs because leopards will take down wildebeest, zebras, gazelles and warthogs; however, their habitat is a little different.

Leopards live in wooded areas, and their hunting style relies more on surprise and their fantastic leaping ability as opposed to the hunting styles of lions and cheetahs that rely more on strength and speed, respectively. So even though these three predators share many features and may seem to be in direct competition with each other at first glance, we can see how each of them has their own specialized niche and, therefore, how they can all coexist in the same ecosystem.

Population Density

Let's switch gears a little bit now and talk about different ways that population size is regulated using one of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem's most abundant animals, the wildebeest, as an example. Within an ecosystem, we can measure the density of each population by calculating the number of individuals per unit of area.

The density of a population within an ecosystem is determined by a number of factors, including the amount of habitat, food, water and shelter that are available, as well as the rates of predation, disease and reproduction that are occurring within the population. Some of these factors become more limiting as the population increases. These factors are called density-dependent factors. Some examples of density-dependent factors are the amounts of habitat, food, water and shelter that are available.

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Video Transcript

The Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem

Location of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem
Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem

This is Kiki the lion. Kiki is a female African Lion that lives in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. The Masai Mara is a national park whose mission is to preserve and protect the northern part of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. You may remember that an ecosystem is composed of all organisms and all abiotic factors within a geographic location.

The Serengeti-Mara ecosystem contains a stunning array of animals, including vast herds of wildebeest, zebras and Thompson's gazelles and smaller populations of elephants, rhinos, giraffes, crocodiles, warthogs, hyenas and over 470 species of birds - not to mention all of the lizards, snakes, insects and other smaller animals. And yes, it also includes a population of lions, as well as populations of other big cats like leopards and cheetahs.

The Serengeti-Mara ecosystem also includes all of the plant life in the area. After all, what would all of the wildebeest and zebras eat if there wasn't an abundance of grasses, and how would the giraffes survive if there were no acacia trees providing leaves for them to eat? And what about all of the abiotic factors, otherwise known as nonliving environmental factors like climate, elevation, soil type and sources of water?

These are all a part of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem too. All of these aspects of an ecosystem are contained within a specific geographic location. In the case of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, the geographic location contains parts of Northern Tanzania and Southern Kenya just east of Lake Victoria.

Okay, so by now you're probably beginning to realize how huge and complex an ecosystem can be. But let's go back to Kiki, our lion. Although Kiki is a part of this vast ecosystem, there are likely going to be areas that are suitable for Kiki to live in and areas that are not. A habitat is an area that is suitable for a particular organism to live in. In Kiki's case, her habitat is the grassy plains and open woodland, or savanna, of sub-Saharan Africa.

Niches

Now we know what Kiki's habitat is, and we know that she is a part of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, but how does she fit into the ecosystem? Being a lion, Kiki is a predator, which means that she hunts and kills other animals for food. But simply being a predator doesn't completely explain how Kiki fits into the ecosystem. There are lots of different types of predators that live in different areas of the ecosystem and eat lots of different types of animals. What we are trying to determine here is Kiki's niche, or the role that she plays in her ecosystem.

Lions are big game hunters of the open grasslands. The animals that they hunt most often are wildebeest and zebras, but they'll take down even larger animals like immature water buffalo and young giraffes if they get an opportunity. The lion hunting style is to ambush and overpower, usually as a group.

All of these details help to define the niche of a particular species. Organisms carve out their own unique niches that they specialize in, and it is extremely unusual to find two organisms with the same exact niche, so let's take a look at how Kiki's niche is different from some other similar predators of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem.

First, let's take look at the cheetah, which is another big cat predator that shares the same habitat with lions: the open grasslands. However, cheetahs have a different niche because they usually hunt smaller, faster animals like gazelles, rabbits, young warthogs, etc. They also have a different hunting style, which is to use their speed to run down the quick animals that they hunt. Because of these differences, lions and cheetahs have different niches and can coexist in the same habitat.

Similar animals with different hunting styles and prey have separate niches in the ecosystem
Ecosystem niches

Leopards are another big cat predator that live in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. Their food source overlaps with both lions and cheetahs because leopards will take down wildebeest, zebras, gazelles and warthogs; however, their habitat is a little different.

Leopards live in wooded areas, and their hunting style relies more on surprise and their fantastic leaping ability as opposed to the hunting styles of lions and cheetahs that rely more on strength and speed, respectively. So even though these three predators share many features and may seem to be in direct competition with each other at first glance, we can see how each of them has their own specialized niche and, therefore, how they can all coexist in the same ecosystem.

Population Density

Let's switch gears a little bit now and talk about different ways that population size is regulated using one of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem's most abundant animals, the wildebeest, as an example. Within an ecosystem, we can measure the density of each population by calculating the number of individuals per unit of area.

The density of a population within an ecosystem is determined by a number of factors, including the amount of habitat, food, water and shelter that are available, as well as the rates of predation, disease and reproduction that are occurring within the population. Some of these factors become more limiting as the population increases. These factors are called density-dependent factors. Some examples of density-dependent factors are the amounts of habitat, food, water and shelter that are available.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is an example of a species niche?

A species niche is a specific and unique role that a certain species has within its ecosystem. Niches are typically occupied by just one species of organism.

What is an animal niche?

An animal niche is the specialized role or job it plays in its ecosystem. It is related to how, when, where, and what it eats, as well as other behavioral habits.

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