Sunday, December 29, 2013

So you slept through science class, part 9–what’s a “niche”?

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The Los Angeles Times recently reported (12/5/2013) that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing under the Endangered Species Act 11 tarantula species found in India and Sri Lanka.  These beautiful creatures are threatened by the international pet trade.  We’ve also written about other endangered spider species – the Kauai Cave wolf spider.  So why should we care about spiders?  The answer is because they fill a specific “niche” in their environments. 

Often, when it comes to endangered species conservation, the public wants to concentrate on the big, exciting animals – lions and tigers and bears, oh my!  We call these creatures “charismatic megafauna.”  They certainly are fun animals to watch and photograph, but remember that each of these large species depends on a healthy, functioning ecosystem to survive. 

As we discussed in part 5 of the science class series, ecosystems depend on biodiversity to stay healthy – each ecosystem requires the proper mix of plant and animal species in order to function properly.  The reason these plant and animal species are necessary, is because each species plays a very specific role in the ecosystem.  Ecologists call this role the “niche.”  The niche includes everything that an animal eats, everything that the animal might feed (if it’s a prey species), any changes it makes to its environment as it finds shelter, etc.  To put it in human terms, your niche would be your home, job, hobbies, etc.  If one species disappears, its role or niche is no longer filled.  The loss leaves a hole in the ecosystem structure (picture a spider web with a big hole poked in it). 

So even a creature as small as a spider plays an important role in its ecosystem; that’s why we care about conserving spiders!

Want to learn a few fun spider facts?  Here we go!

  1. North America is home to over 3,000 of the approximately 40,000 species of spider worldwide!
  2. The largest spider is the Goliath Bird-eating Tarantula, which can grow as large as a small dinner plate!  Check out this National Geographic video:
  3. Spiders are not insects – they’ve got 8 legs and 2 body parts (as opposed to insects with 6 legs and 3 body parts)
  4. Spiders don’t have internal skeletons – they’ve got exoskeletons made of chitin (the second most common carbohydrate on Earth!)
  5. Some spiders spin webs each day and eat them at the end of the day to recycle the protein in the strands!
  6. Pound for pound, spiders’ silk is one of the strongest fibers on Earth!
  7. Spiders have been sent into outerspace!  For more information on these “spidernauts”, see NASA’s website.  Check out Esmerelda as she dines at zero-gravity on the international space station!


Earth’s Endangered Creatures.  2006-2013.  Accessed 10/31/2012.

NASA.  2011.  International Space Station, Research Website.  Accessed 10/31/2012.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.  2006.  Kauai Cave Wolf Spider (Adelocosa anops), 5-Year Review:  Summary and Evaluation.

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