Species pools in cultural landscapes – niche construction, ecological opportunity and niche shifts

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This paper discusses the ecology of species that were favoured by the development of the cultural landscape in central and NW Europe beginning in the Neolithic and the Bronze Age, with a focus on mechanisms behind species responses to this landscape transformation. A fraction of species may have maintained their realized niches from the pre- agricultural landscape and utilized similar niches created by the landscape transformation. However, I suggest that many species responded by altering their niche relationships, and a conceptual model is proposed for this response, based on niche construction, ecological opportunity and niche shifts. Human-mediated niche construction, associated with clearing of forests and creation of pastures and fields promoted niche shifts towards open habitats, and species exploited the ecological opportunity provided by these created environments. This process was initially purely ecological, i.e. the new habitats must have been included in the original fundamental niche of the species. Two other features of human-mediated niche construction, increased interconnectivity and increased spatial stability of open habitats, resulted in species accumulating in the habitats of the constructed landscape. As a consequence, selection processes were initiated favouring traits promoting fitness in the constructed landscape. This process implied a feed-back to niche shifts, but now also including evolutionary changes in fundamental niches. I briefly discuss whether this model can be applied also to present-day anthropogenic impact on landscapes. A general conclusion is that ecological and evolutionary changes in species niches should be more explicitly considered in modeling and predictions of species response to present-day landscape and land-use changes.

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