Penguins construct huddle temperature

Emperor penguins are the only vertebrate species able to breed during the Antarctic winter. They huddle together to try to keep warm in an icy landscape that can be as cold as 50 degrees Celsius below zero. By huddling together for just two hours, penguin bodies can raise the temperature in the middle of the huddle to as high as 37 degrees above zero. To find out more about how penguins create a warm environment in the Antarctic, read Gilbert et al (2007).

Earthworms make soil

Despite living on land for millions of years, earthworms have retained the physiology of the freshwater species from which they evolved. For more on how earthworms process soil to suit their aquatic physiology read Turner (2000). A précis can be found in Odling-Smee et al. (2003). For an up-to-date summary of earthworm effects on soil see Frelich et al. (2019). Caro et al. (2014) describe how earthworm niche construction can improve soil quality and reduce earthworm dispersal.

Hermit crabs build homes

Hermit crabs use shells as safe homes to live in. They modify these shells to increase their inner size and reduce their weight. As they grow, they need larger shells. But the only shells big enough are those carried by other hermit crabs. Hermit crabs gather, waiting for other hermit crabs to change shells, and then jump into a suitable vacated one. Laidre (2012, 2019) describes how, by hollowing out the gastropod shells in which they live, hermit crabs create a biological market and drive the evolution of social dependence.

Dung beetles construct dung balls

Female dung beetles manufacture and bury a brood ball of dung and insert into it a faecal pedestal onto which they lay an egg. Through niche construction they provide a safe home, food, and microbiome for their developing young. Developing larvae also processes the brood ball, changing microbiome composition. Experiments show that maternal and offspring niche construction strongly affect offspring size, fitness and trait characteristics. For more on how mother dung beetles construct a brood ball and the role of larval niche construction see Schwab et al. (2016, 2017).

Forest fires construct local ecology

By affecting local fire intensities or the probability of ignition, traits that influence plant flammability may indirectly control selection for fire-related life-history and physiological traits. To learn more about how flammability traits shape natural selection on fire tolerance and resprouting, read Schwilk (2003).

Plants create developmental environments

Even traits such as the timing of germination and flowering can be niche-constructing traits. The timing of germination and flowering determine the seasonal environment experienced by plants and their offspring. This alters many traits, the expression of genetic variation of those traits, and natural selection on those traits. To learn more about how the timing of flowering and germination are niche-constructing traits for seeds, see Donohue’s studies of Arabidopsis (2005, 2013).

Snails construct a desert ecosystem

Euchondrus spp. snails feed on lichens that grow on and under rocks in the Negev desert. Each snail is very small, and has a tiny effect on its environment, and yet their activities have a massive effect on the entire desert ecosystem. For more on how, by breaking down rocks to eat lichen, snails create soil in the desert, and support an entire ecosystem, read Shachak et al. (1987) and Jones & Shachak (1990).

Dairy farming creates a new niche

The domestication of cattle and consumption of dairy products is a compelling example of human niche construction. For more on how the cultural niche-constructing habit of dairy farming generated selection for adult lactose tolerance read Gerbault et al. (2011) and O’Brien & Laland (2012).  For other examples of cultural niche construction see Laland et al. (2010).

Yeast construct a transport system

Buser et al. (2014) demonstrate experimentally how through their niche construction (the modification of fruit) the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae attracts Drosophila, and facilitates its own propagation.

Bacteria create new niches

Callahan et al. 2014 demonstrate experimentally that niche construction evolves rapidly, under a broad range of conditions, in microbial populations. San Roman & Wagner (2018) show that bacterial niche construction creates a very large number of new niches for other bacteria.

Rhubarb creates moisture in the desert

More desert plants have small leaves or spines, to conserve water. The desert rhubarb (Rheum palaestinum) survives with huge leaves that are self-irrigating. Its leaves channel water towards its taproot, which grows and​ then shrinks again, producing chemical exudates that line the cavity, where water gathers. To learn how the desert rhubarb constructs a moisture-rich environment in the desert read Lev-Yadun et al. (2009).

Squid and bacteria construct a light organ

To read about how a squid and some bacteria collaborated to create a light organ see Gilbert (2020). Other examples of developmental niche construction can be found in Laland et al. (2008) and Gilbert (2020).

Domestication and origins of agriculture

To learn more about how human niche construction played a vital role in the domestication of plants and animals and the origins of agriculture, read Smith (2007, 2016) and Zeder (2017, 2018).

Killer whale culture

For more on how the cultural dietary habits of killer whales are driving their own evolution read Foote et al. (2016).

Beavers construct local communities

To learn more about how, by cutting down trees and constructing dams, beavers transform rivers and streams into wetlands with a very different community structure, read Naiman et al. (1988) and Wright et al. (2002).

Forbs & grasses construct local ecology

To learn more about how, by affecting process rates and nutrient cycling, forbs and grasses create niches for other alpine plants, see Brathen & Raivolainen (2015).

Plants construct the light

To read about how plants alter the shape and orientation of their leaves to optimize the amount of light they receive, and many other examples of experiential niche construction, see Sultan (2015).

Viral niche construction

To read more about how viruses create diseases by constructing niches for themselves, read Hamblin et al. (2014).

Adaptation (process)

The complementary match between organism and environment arises through interactions between natural selection and internally and externally expressed constructive development.

Constructive development

The developing organism shapes its own developmental trajectory by responding to environmental inputs and altering internal and external states.

Counteractive niche construction

Organisms either perturb their environments, or move in space, to wholly or partly reverse or neutralise some prior change in their environment.

Cryptic genetic variation

Genetic variation that normally has little or no effect on phenotypic variation but is expressed under atypical conditions.

Developmental bias

The nonrandom generation of phenotypes by developmental systems, with variants sometimes being channeled by the processes of development towards functional goals.

Ecological inheritance

The inheritance, via an external environment, of one or more natural selection pressures previously modified by niche-constructing organisms.

Ecosystem engineering

The modification by organisms of physical surroundings (e.g., light environment, physical habitat structure) so as to modulate the availability of resources or energy fluxes in an ecosystem


A transgenerational change in the distribution of heritable traits of a population.

Explanatory gap

The absence of a satisfactory causal chain linking causal inputs to outputs.

Extended evolutionary synthesis

A new evolutionary framework emphasizing that knowledge of how organisms develop, grow, and interact with environments helps to account for adaptation and the diversity of life.

Facilitated variation

Viable, adaptive or functional phenotypic variation, frequently generated through somatic selection processes in development (e.g. adaptive immunity).

Genetic accommodation

Gene frequency change due to selection on variation in the regulation, form, or side-effects of a novel trait.

Genetic assimilation

A form of ‘genetic accommodation’ that occurs when natural selection causes environmentally induced (i.e. plastic) phenotypes to lose their environmental sensitivity over evolutionary time.


All causal mechanisms by which offspring come to resemble their parents.

Inceptive niche construction

Organisms either perturb their environments, or move, to introduce a new change in one or more natural selection pressures.

Inclusive inheritance

Parental transference of developmental resources (mediated through genetic, epigenetic, physiological, behavioural and ecological inheritance mechanisms) that enable reconstruction of life cycles.


The sum of all the natural selection pressures to which the population is exposed.

Niche construction

The process whereby organisms, through their metabolism, their activities, and their choices, modify their own and/or each other’s niches.

Organismal agency

The capacity of living organisms to act on, and in, their world, and to modify their experience of it, including in ways that are neither predetermined, nor random. 


A class of individuals in a human population with a specified combination of a genotype and a variant of a cultural trait.

Phenotypic accommodation

The adaptive mutual adjustment during development of variable parts of an organism, without genetic change.

Phenotypic plasticity

Environmental induction leads to developmental reorganization and production of a novel phenotypic variant.

Plasticity-first evolution

A mechanism of adaptive evolution in which environmental induction leads to developmental reorganization and production of a novel developmental variant that is accommodated by individual phenotypes. If the environmental stimulus is recurrent, the phenotype will be refined and stabilized by genetic accommodation.

Positive niche construction

Niche-constructing acts that, on average, increase the fitness of the niche-constructing organisms. In the short run virtually all niche construction by individual organisms is expected to be positive.

Reciprocal causation

Process A is a cause of process B and, subsequently, process B is a cause of process A. Reciprocal causation captures the idea that developing organisms are not solely products, but are also causes, of evolution.

Relocational niche construction

Organisms actively move in space, as well as choose or bias the direction, the distance in space through which they travel, and the time when they travel, thereby modifying natural selection.

Semantic information

Adaptive, or possibly maladaptive “know how” carried by organisms typically, but not exclusively, in genomes.  In biology “know how” seldom carries cognitive connotations (Chaitin, 1987).

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