Why is niche construction important?

Numerous animals manufacture nests, burrows, holes, webs and pupal cases; plants change the levels of atmospheric gases and modify nutrient cycles; fungi decompose organic matter; and bacteria engage in decomposition and nutrient fixation. This niche construction – the process of organism-driven environmental modification – affects evolutionary processes by altering selection pressures, generating feedback in evolution, on a scale hitherto underestimated, and in a manner that strongly influences evolutionary dynamics. Niche construction also alters resource flows, with major ramifications for ecological dynamics.

Studying niche construction potentially helps us to understand evolutionary and ecological processes. For instance, the requirement to understand the causes of biodiversity and the factors affecting its loss are clear and relevant to the sustainable development of natural systems. Organisms frequently manufacture habitat and resources that support other species, thereby influencing the stability, productivity and diversity of ecosystems, with important implications for conservation and management. The niche-construction perspective potentially offers novel insights across many fields of science, including ecology, evolution and the human sciences, and a new generic paradigm with which to address old problems, such as the factors that underlie ecosystem stability and diversity. The idea that niche construction imposes an evolutionary bias on selection is central to the extended evolutionary synthesis.