On niche partitioning and the Ohio State Buckeyes

By: Erin Pickett, MS student, Biotelemetry and Behavioral Ecology Laboratory & GEMM Lab, MMI

Buckeye anecdote

I recently found myself sitting at a Sunday brunch at the Westin in Washington, D.C., talking to my uncle about my research on the foraging ecology of penguins. Our entire extended family had gathered for a cousin’s wedding, and it was the first family gathering in a long time that I had been able to attend due to always being “out on some island”, as my cousin puts it. In fact, I got a shout-out during one of the dinner reception speeches for coming all the way from Antarctica for the wedding.

My uncle asked me about my research while our surrounding family members sipped their coffee and OJ and recounted the highlights of the previous night’s wedding reception. This conversation with my uncle was the first I’d had with a family member all weekend that had progressed past my ‘elevator speech’ of what I was studying in school. After I described my research questions about resource partitioning between Adelie and gentoo penguins, my uncle glanced around the room full of family members and said to me, “You know what….”? And then he went on to describe his thoughts about how our aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws all occupied distinct niches within our family.

The definition of the word niche is broad, and for this reason it can be used to describe the roles of younger siblings, matriarchs, sisters, and Ohio State Buckeye fans within their families or communities. Take for example my entire family on the dance floor chanting O-H-I-O during the bands requisite rendition of “Hang on Sloopy” at the wedding reception. As Buckeyes, we were occupying a role distinct from that of the bride’s family, who are Notre Dame Fans. Within our immediate families, the roles of every sibling and parent are further differentiated. My uncle and I looked around the room and saw a family who despite a wide range of personalities and football allegiances, was managing to enjoy a pretty good time together!

Ecological niche theory and sympatric penguins

In ecology, the term niche is used to describe the ecological role that a species occupies within an ecosystem (Hutchinson 1957). The concept of an ecological niche is typically used in ecology to describe how similar species coexist within the same space. This coexistence is made possible through segregation mechanisms that facilitate resource partitioning, such as spatial or temporal differences in foraging location, or dietary segregation (Pianka 1974). With this in mind, the main objective of my master’s research is to quantify the ecological niches of Adelie and gentoo penguins in terms of space, time and diet, in order to investigate whether foraging competition is occurring between these two species. You’ll find more background on this project here.

The first step in my investigation of resource partitioning was to assess the extent and consistency of dietary overlap between these two species. The diets of Adelie and gentoo penguins vary regionally, but along the Antarctic Peninsula the prey of both species is typically dominated by Antarctic krill. This was the case when I studied the diets of these two species at Palmer Station in Antarctica. I also found that both species consume the same size classes of krill and that this was consistent across both low and high prey availability years (Figure 1).

Size class frequency distribution of Antarctic krill found in penguin diet samples (2010-2015). Krill size class bins shown on x-axis and proportions depicted on y-axis
Figure 1. Length-frequency distribution of Antarctic krill found in penguin diet samples (2010-2015). Krill size class bins shown on x-axis with the proportion of those size classes depicted on the y-axis. Palmer LTER unpublished data.

The next step of my project is to assess the foraging habits and space-use patterns of these two species. They share food, but do they forage in the same areas? I am in the process of analyzing spatial data obtained from satellite and TDR (time depth recording) tags temporarily attached to Adelie and gentoo penguins during the breeding season to determine the core foraging areas. I am using kernel density estimate (KDE) techniques to visually and quantitatively determine the size and extent of spatial overlap between both species foraging areas (Figure 2).

Figure 2.
Figure 2. An example plot of 3D kernel density estimates outlining 95% and 50% volume contours of foraging penguins during the 2010 breeding season. Orange and green depict the core foraging areas of gentoo and Adelies, respectively. Horizontal axes show northing and easting values and depth is shown in meters on the vertical axis.

The KDE method allows me to turn hundreds of satellite tag derived location points into a probability density surface which depicts where an animal is most likely to be found (Kie et al. 2010).  2D KDEs are sufficient to describe the ranges of many terrestrial animals, however, 3D KDEs are a more appropriate description of the space-use patterns of diving seabirds. By failing to incorporate the depth at which these two species are foraging, 2D KDEs might overestimate the extent of spatial overlap between two species who are foraging in the same location but at different depths. Similar to other studies (Cimino et al. 2016 & Wilson 2010), I am finding that Adelie and gentoo penguins may be partitioning resources by foraging at different depths, with gentoo penguins diving deeper than Adelies. By foraging at different depths, these two species are limiting foraging competition.

While I am working on these analyses, I am also thinking about my next step, which will be to determine whether foraging niche overlap between Adelie and gentoo penguins is a function of prey availability. Resource availability is a critical component of niche segregation. When resources are abundant, there is typically a higher tolerance for niche overlap (Pianka 1974, Torres 2009). Conversely, niches may become more distinct as resources decrease and successfully partitioning these resources will become more important to minimize competition. In order to address the effect of resource availability on niche partitioning between Adelie and gentoo penguins, I will be comparing their foraging niches during years of both low and high prey availability. This will allow me to truly evaluate the potential occurrence of foraging competition between these two species.


I’ll keep you updated on my progress with data analysis in future blogs, but before I go I’ll share one last piece of wisdom about niche theory that I’ve learned from my family. There is a niche for everyone unless you are a Michigan fan, then no amount of spatial or dietary partitioning in a room full of Ohio State Buckeyes will save you.


Cimino, Megan A., et al. “Climate-driven sympatry may not lead to foraging competition between congeneric top-predators.” Scientific reports 6 (2016).

Hutchinson, G.E. “Concluding remarks. Population Studies: Animal Ecology and Demography.” Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology 22 (1957): 415-427.

Kie, John G., et al. “The home-range concept: are traditional estimators still relevant with modern telemetry technology?” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 365.1550 (2010): 2221-2231.

Pianka, Eric R. “Niche overlap and diffuse competition.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 71.5 (1974): 2141-2145.

Torres, Leigh G. “A kaleidoscope of mammal, bird and fish: habitat use patterns of top predators and their prey in Florida Bay.” Marine Ecology Progress Series 375 (2009): 289-304.

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