In ecology, a habitat is the kind of natural environment in which a
particular organism species lives. It is characterized by both
physical and biological features. A species' habitat is those places
where it can find food, shelter, protection and mates for
The physical factors are for example soil, moisture, range of
temperature, and light intensity as well as biotic factors such as the
availability of food and the presence or absence of predators. Every
organism has certain habitat needs for the conditions in which it will
thrive, but some are tolerant of wide variations while others are very
specific in their requirements. A habitat is not necessarily a
geographical area, it can be the interior of a stem, a rotten log, a
rock or a clump of moss, and for a parasitic organism it is the body
of its host, part of the host's body such as the digestive tract, or a
single cell within the host's body.
Habitat types include polar, temperate, subtropical and tropical. The
terrestrial vegetation type may be forest, steppe, grassland,
semi-arid or desert.
Fresh water habitats include marshes, streams,
rivers, lakes, ponds and estuaries, and marine habitats include salt
marshes, the coast, the intertidal zone, reefs, bays, the open sea,
the sea bed, deep water and submarine vents.
Habitats change over time. This may be due to a violent event such as
the eruption of a volcano, an earthquake, a tsunami, a wildfire or a
change in oceanic currents; or the change may be more gradual over
millennia with alterations in the climate, as ice sheets and glaciers
advance and retreat, and as different weather patterns bring changes
of precipitation and solar radiation. Other changes come as a direct
result of human activities; deforestation, the ploughing of ancient
grasslands, the diversion and damming of rivers, the draining of
marshland and the dredging of the seabed. The introduction of alien
species can have a devastating effect on native wildlife, through
increased predation, through competition for resources or through the
introduction of pests and diseases to which the native species have no
1 Definition and etymology
2 Environmental factors
5 Extreme habitats
8 Monotypic habitat
9 See also
10 Notes and references
11 External links
Definition and etymology
The word "habitat" has been in use since about 1755 and derives from
Latin habitāre, to inhabit, from habēre, to have or to hold.
Habitat can be defined as the natural environment of an organism, the
type of place in which it is natural for it to live and grow. It
is similar in meaning to a biotope; an area of uniform environmental
conditions associated with a particular community of plants and
The chief environmental factors affecting the distribution of living
organisms are temperature, humidity, climate, soil type and light
intensity, and the presence or absence of all the requirements that
the organism needs to sustain it. Generally speaking, animal
communities are reliant on specific types of plant communities.
Some plants and animals are generalists, and their habitat
requirements are met in a wide range of locations. The small white
butterfly (Pieris rapae) for example is found on all the continents of
the world apart from Antarctica. Its larvae feed on a wide range of
Brassicas and various other plant species, and it thrives in any open
location with diverse plant associations. The large blue butterfly
is much more specific in its requirements; it is found only in chalk
grassland areas, its larvae feed on Thymus species and because of
complex lifecycle requirements it inhabits only areas in which Myrmica
Disturbance is important in the creation of biodiverse habitats. In
the absence of disturbance, a climax vegetation cover develops that
prevents the establishment of other species.
Wildflower meadows are
sometimes created by conservationists but most of the flowering plants
used are either annuals or biennials and disappear after a few years
in the absence of patches of bare ground on which their seedlings can
grow. Lightning strikes and toppled trees in tropical forests allow
species richness to be maintained as pioneering species move in to
fill the gaps created. Similarly coastal habitats can become
dominated by kelp until the seabed is disturbed by a storm and the
algae swept away, or shifting sediment exposes new areas for
colonisation. Another cause of disturbance is when an area may be
overwhelmed by an invasive introduced species which is not kept under
control by natural enemies in its new habitat.
Rich rainforest habitat in Dominica
Terrestrial habitat types include forests, grasslands, wetlands and
deserts. Within these broad biomes are more specific habitats with
varying climate types, temperature regimes, soils, altitudes and
vegetation types. Many of these habitats grade into each other and
each one has its own typical communities of plants and animals. A
habitat may suit a particular species well, but its presence or
absence at any particular location depends to some extent on chance,
on its dispersal abilities and its efficiency as a coloniser.
Wetland habitats in Borneo
Freshwater habitats include rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, marshes and
bogs. Although some organisms are found across most of these
habitats, the majority have more specific requirements. The water
velocity, its temperature and oxygen saturation are important factors,
but in river systems, there are fast and slow sections, pools, bayous
and backwaters which provide a range of habitats. Similarly, aquatic
plants can be floating, semi-submerged, submerged or grow in
permanently or temporarily saturated soils besides bodies of water.
Marginal plants provide important habitat for both invertebrates and
vertebrates, and submerged plants provide oxygenation of the water,
absorb nutrients and play a part in the reduction of pollution.
Marine habitats include brackish water, estuaries, bays, the open sea,
the intertidal zone, the sea bed, reefs and deep / shallow water
zones. Further variations include rock pools, sand banks,
mudflats, brackish lagoons, sandy and pebbly beaches, and seagrass
beds, all supporting their own flora and fauna. The benthic zone or
seabed provides a home for both static organisms, anchored to the
substrate, and for a large range of organisms crawling on or burrowing
into the surface. Some creatures float among the waves on the surface
of the water, or raft on floating debris, others swim at a range of
depths, including organisms in the demersal zone close to the seabed,
and myriads of organisms drift with the currents and form the
Desert scene in Egypt
A desert is not the kind of habitat that favours the presence of
amphibians, with their requirement for water to keep their skins moist
and for the development of their young. Nevertheless, some frogs live
in deserts, creating moist habitats underground and hibernating while
conditions are adverse.
Couch's spadefoot toad
Couch's spadefoot toad (Scaphiopus couchii)
emerges from its burrow when a downpour occurs and lays its eggs in
the transient pools that form; the tadpoles develop with great
rapidity, sometimes in as little as nine days, undergo metamorphosis,
and feed voraciously before digging a burrow of their own.
Other organisms cope with the drying up of their aqueous habitat in
other ways. Vernal pools are ephemeral ponds that form in the rainy
season and dry up afterwards. They have their specially-adapted
characteristic flora, mainly consisting of annuals, the seeds of which
survive the drought, but also some uniquely adapted perennials.
Animals adapted to these extreme habitats also exist; fairy shrimps
can lay "winter eggs" which are resistant to desiccation, sometimes
being blown about with the dust, ending up in new depressions in the
ground. These can survive in a dormant state for as long as fifteen
years. Some killifish behave in a similar way; their eggs hatch
and the juvenile fish grow with great rapidity when the conditions are
right, but the whole population of fish may end up as eggs in diapause
in the dried up mud that was once a pond.
Many animals and plants have taken up residence in urban environments.
They tend to be adaptable generalists and use the town's features to
make their homes. Rats and mice have followed man around the globe,
pigeons, peregrines, sparrows, swallows and house martins use the
buildings for nesting, bats use roof space for roosting, foxes visit
the garbage bins and squirrels, coyotes, raccoons and skunks roam the
streets. About 2,000 coyotes are thought to live in and around
Chicago. A survey of dwelling houses in northern European cities
in the twentieth century found about 175 species of invertebrate
inside them, including 53 species of beetle, 21 flies, 13 butterflies
and moths, 13 mites, 9 lice, 7 bees, 5 wasps, 5 cockroaches, 5
spiders, 4 ants and a number of other groups. In warmer climates,
termites are serious pests in the urban habitat; 183 species are known
to affect buildings and 83 species cause serious structural
A microhabitat is the small-scale physical requirements of a
particular organism or population. Every habitat includes large
numbers of microhabitats with subtly different exposure to light,
humidity, temperature, air movement, and other factors. The lichens
that grow on the north face of a boulder are different to those that
grow on the south face, from those on the level top and those that
grow on the ground nearby; the lichens growing in the grooves and on
the raised surfaces are different from those growing on the veins of
quartz. Lurking among these miniature "forests" are the microfauna,
each species of invertebrate with its own specific habitat
There are numerous different microhabitats in a wood; coniferous
forest, broad-leafed forest, open woodland, scattered trees, woodland
verges, clearings and glades; tree trunk, branch, twig, bud, leaf,
flower and fruit; rough bark, smooth bark, damaged bark, rotten wood,
hollow, groove and hole; canopy, shrub layer, plant layer, leaf litter
and soil; buttress root, stump, fallen log, stem base, grass tussock,
fungus, fern and moss. The greater the structural diversity in the
wood, the greater the number of microhabitats that will be present. A
range of tree species with individual specimens of varying sizes and
ages, and a range of features such as streams, level areas, slopes,
tracks, clearings and felled areas will provide suitable conditions
for an enormous number of biodiverse plants and animals. For example,
in Britain it has been estimated that various types of rotting wood
are home to over 1700 species of invertebrate.
For a parasitic organism, its habitat is the particular part of the
outside or inside of its host on or in which it is adapted to live.
The life cycle of some parasites involves several different host
species, as well as free-living life stages, sometimes providing
vastly different microhabitats. One such organism is the trematode
(flatworm) Microphallus turgidus, present in brackish water marshes in
the southeastern United States. Its first intermediate host is a snail
and the second, a glass shrimp. The final host is the waterfowl or
mammal that consumes the shrimp.
Main article: Extremophile
An Antarctic rock split apart to show an endolithic lifeform showing
as a green layer a few millimetres thick
Although the vast majority of life on Earth lives in mesophyllic
(moderate) environments, a few organisms, most of them microbes, have
managed to colonise extreme environments that are unsuitable for most
higher life forms. There are bacteria, for example, living in Lake
Whillans, half a mile below the ice of Antarctica; in the absence of
sunlight, they must rely on organic material from elsewhere, perhaps
decaying matter from glacier melt water or minerals from the
underlying rock. Other bacteria can be found in abundance in the
Mariana Trench, the deepest place in the ocean and on Earth; marine
snow drifts down from the surface layers of the sea and accumulates in
this undersea valley, providing nourishment for an extensive community
Other microbes live in habitats lacking in oxygen, and are dependent
on chemical reactions other than photosynthesis. Boreholes drilled
300 m (1,000 ft) into the rocky seabed have found microbial
communities apparently based on the products of reactions between
water and the constituents of rocks. These communities have been
little studied, but may be an important part of the global carbon
cycle. Rock in mines two miles deep also harbour microbes; these
live on minute traces of hydrogen produced in slow oxidizing reactions
inside the rock. These metabolic reactions allow life to exist in
places with no oxygen or light, an environment that had previously
been thought to be devoid of life.
The intertidal zone and the photic zone in the oceans are relatively
familiar habitats. However the vast bulk of the ocean is unhospitable
to air-breathing humans, with scuba divers limited to the upper
50 m (160 ft) or so. The lower limit for photosynthesis
is 100 to 200 m (330 to 660 ft) and below that depth the
prevailing conditions include total darkness, high pressure, little
oxygen (in some places), scarce food resources and extreme cold. This
habitat is very challenging to research, and as well as being little
studied, it is vast, with 79% of the Earth's biosphere being at depths
greater than 1,000 m (3,300 ft). With no plant life, the
animals in this zone are either detritivores, reliant on food drifting
down from surface layers, or they are predators, feeding on each
other. Some organisms are pelagic, swimming or drifting in mid-ocean,
while others are benthic, living on or near the seabed. Their growth
rates and metabolisms tend to be slow, their eyes may be very large to
detect what little illumination there is, or they may be blind and
rely on other sensory inputs. A number of deep sea creatures are
bioluminescent; this serves a variety of functions including
predation, protection and social recognition. In general, the
bodies of animals living at great depths are adapted to high pressure
environments by having pressure-resistant biomolecules and small
organic molecules present in their cells known as piezolytes, which
give the proteins the flexibility they need. There are also
unsaturated fats in their membranes which prevent them from
solidifying at low temperatures.
Dense mass of white crabs at a hydrothermal vent, with stalked
barnacles on right
Hydrothermal vents were first discovered in the ocean depths in
1977. They result from seawater becoming heated after seeping
through cracks to places where hot magma is close to the seabed. The
under-water hot springs may gush forth at temperatures of over
340 °C (640 °F) and support unique communities of
organisms in their immediate vicinity. The basis for this teeming
life is chemosynthesis, a process by which microbes convert such
substances as hydrogen sulfide or ammonia into organic molecules.
These bacteria and
Archaea are the primary producers in these
ecosystems and support a diverse array of life. About 350 species of
organism, dominated by molluscs, polychaete worms and crustaceans, had
been discovered around hydrothermal vents by the end of the twentieth
century, most of them being new to science and endemic to these
Besides providing locomotion opportunities for winged animals and a
conduit for the dispersal of pollen grains, spores and seeds, the
atmosphere can be considered to be a habitat in its own right. There
are metabolically active microbes present that actively reproduce and
spend their whole existence airborne, with hundreds of thousands of
individual organisms estimated to be present in a cubic metre of air.
The airborne microbial community may be as diverse as that found in
soil or other terrestrial environments, however these organisms are
not evenly distributed, their densities varying spatially with
altitude and environmental conditions.
Aerobiology has been little
studied, but there is evidence of nitrogen fixation in clouds, and
less clear evidence of carbon cycling, both facilitated by microbial
There are other examples of extreme habitats where specially adapted
lifeforms exist; tar pits teeming with microbial life; naturally
occurring crude oil pools inhabited by the larvae of the petroleum
fly; hot springs where the temperature may be as high as
71 °C (160 °F) and cyanobacteria create microbial
mats; cold seeps where the methane and hydrogen sulfide issue from
the ocean floor and support microbes and higher animals such as
mussels which form symbiotic associations with these anaerobic
organisms; salt pans harbour salt-tolerant microorganisms and also
Wallemia ichthyophaga, a basidomycotous fungus; ice sheets in
Antarctica which support fungi
Thelebolus spp., and snowfields on
which algae grow.
Twenty five years after the devastating eruption at Mount St. Helens,
United States, pioneer species have moved in.
Whether from natural processes or the activities of man, landscapes
and their associated habitats change over time. There are the slow
geomorphological changes associated with the geologic processes that
cause tectonic uplift and subsidence, and the more rapid changes
associated with earthquakes, landslides, storms, flooding, wildfires,
coastal erosion, deforestation and changes in land use. Then there
are the changes in habitats brought on by alterations in farming
practices, tourism, pollution, fragmentation and climate change.
Loss of habitat is the single greatest threat to any species. If an
island on which an endemic organism lives becomes uninhabitable for
some reason, the species will become extinct. Any type of habitat
surrounded by a different habitat is in a similar situation to an
island. If a forest is divided into parts by logging, with strips of
cleared land separating woodland blocks, and the distances between the
remaining fragments exceeds the distance an individual animal is able
to travel, that species becomes especially vulnerable. Small
populations generally lack genetic diversity and may be threatened by
increased predation, increased competition, disease and unexpected
catastrophe. At the edge of each forest fragment, increased light
encourages secondary growth of fast-growing species and old growth
trees are more vulnerable to logging as access is improved. The birds
that nest in their crevices, the epiphytes that hang from their
branches and the invertebrates in the leaf litter are all adversely
affected and biodiversity is reduced.
Habitat fragmentation can be
ameliorated to some extent by the provision of wildlife corridors
connecting the fragments. These can be a river, ditch, strip of trees,
hedgerow or even an underpass to a highway. Without the corridors,
seeds cannot disperse and animals, especially small ones, cannot
travel through the hostile territory, putting populations at greater
risk of local extinction.
Habitat disturbance can have long-lasting effects on the environment.
Bromus tectorum is a vigorous grass from Europe which has been
introduced to the United States where it has become invasive. It is
highly adapted to fire, producing large amounts of flammable detritus
and increasing the frequency and intensity of wildfires. In areas
where it has become established, it has altered the local fire regimen
to such an extant that native plants cannot survive the frequent
fires, allowing it to become even more dominant. A marine example
is when sea urchin populations "explode" in coastal waters and destroy
all the macroalgae present. What was previously a kelp forest becomes
an urchin barren that may last for years and this can have a profound
effect on the food chain. Removal of the sea urchins, by disease for
example, can result in the seaweed returning, with an over-abundance
of fast-growing kelp.
The protection of habitats is a necessary step in the maintenance of
biodiversity because if habitat destruction occurs, the animals and
plants reliant on that habitat suffer. Many countries have enacted
legislation to protect their wildlife. This may take the form of the
setting up of national parks, forest reserves and wildlife reserves,
or it may restrict the activities of humans with the objective of
benefiting wildlife. The laws may be designed to protect a particular
species or group of species, or the legislation may prohibit such
activities as the collecting of bird eggs, the hunting of animals or
the removal of plants. A general law on the protection of habitats may
be more difficult to implement than a site specific requirement. A
concept introduced in the United States in 1973 involves protecting
the critical habitat of endangered species, and a similar concept has
been incorporated into some Australian legislation.
International treaties may be necessary for such objectives as the
setting up of marine reserves. Another international agreement, the
Convention on the Conservation of Migratory
Species of Wild Animals,
protects animals that migrate across the globe and need protection in
more than one country. However, the protection of habitats needs
to take into account the needs of the local residents for food, fuel
and other resources. Even where legislation protects the environment,
a lack of enforcement often prevents effective protection. Faced with
food shortage, a farmer is likely to plough up a level patch of ground
despite it being the last suitable habitat for an endangered species
such as the San Quintin kangaroo rat, and even kill the animal as a
pest. In this regard, it is desirable to educate the community on
the uniqueness of their flora and fauna and the benefits of
A monotypic habitat is one in which a single species of animal or
plant is so dominant as to virtually exclude all other species. An
example would be sugarcane; this is planted, burnt and harvested, with
herbicides killing weeds and pesticides controlling invertebrates.
The monotypic habitat occurs in botanical and zoological contexts, and
is a component of conservation biology. In restoration ecology of
native plant communities or habitats, some invasive species create
monotypic stands that replace and/or prevent other species, especially
indigenous ones, from growing there. A dominant colonization can occur
from retardant chemicals exuded, nutrient monopolization, or from lack
of natural controls such as herbivores or climate, that keep them in
balance with their native habitats. The yellow starthistle, Centaurea
solstitialis, is a botanical monotypic-habitat example of this,
currently dominating over 15,000,000 acres (61,000 km2) in
California alone. The non-native freshwater zebra mussel,
Dreissena polymorpha, that colonizes areas of the
Great Lakes and the
River watershed, is a zoological monotypic-habitat
example; the predators that control it in its home-range in Russia are
absent and it proliferates abundantly. Even though its name may
seem to imply simplicity as compared with polytypic habitats, the
monotypic habitat can be complex. Aquatic habitats, such as exotic
Hydrilla beds, support a similarly rich fauna of macroinvertebrates to
a more varied habitat, but the creatures present may differ between
the two, affecting small fish and other animals higher up the food
List of life zones by region
Habitat destruction: the loss of habitat
Notes and references
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^ Theel, Heather J.; Dibble, Eric D.; Madsen, John D. (2008).
"Differential influence of a monotypic and diverse native aquatic
plant bed on a macroinvertebrate assemblage; an experimental
implication of exotic plant induced habitat". Hydrobiologia. 600:
Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article
The dictionary definition of habitat at Wiktionary
Media related to Habitats at Wikimedia Commons
Evolutionary developmental biology
Hierarchy of life
Ecosystem > Community (Biocoenosis)
Organism > Organ system
> Organ > Tissue > Cell > Organelle
Biomolecular complex >
Biomolecule) > Atom
Earliest known life forms
Plant morphology terms
Ecology: Modelling ecosystems: Trophic components
List of feeding behaviours
Metabolic theory of ecology
Primary nutritional groups
Generalist and specialist species
Mesopredator release hypothesis
Optimal foraging theory
Microbial food web
North Pacific Subtropical Gyre
San Francisco Estuary
Competitive exclusion principle
Energy Systems Language
Feed conversion ratio
Paradox of the plankton
Trophic state index
Herbivore adaptations to plant defense
Plant defense against herbivory
Predator avoidance in schooling fish
Ecology: Modelling ecosystems: Other components
Effective population size
Malthusian growth model
Maximum sustainable yield
Overpopulation in wild animals
Predator–prey (Lotka–Volterra) equations
Small population size
Ecological effects of biodiversity
Latitudinal gradients in species diversity
Minimum viable population
Population viability analysis
Relative abundance distribution
Relative species abundance
Ideal free distribution
Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis
r/K selection theory
Resource selection function
Environmental niche modelling
Niche apportionment models
Liebig's law of the minimum
Marginal value theorem
Alternative stable state
Balance of nature
Biological data visualization
Ecosystem based fisheries
List of ecology topics