The word "niche" is derived from the Middle French word nicher, meaning to nest. The term was coined by the naturalist Joseph Grinnell in 1917, in his paper "The niche relationships of the California Thrasher." However, it was not until 1927 that Charles Sutherland Elton, a British ecologist, gave the first working definition of the niche concept. He is credited with saying: "[W]hen an ecologist says 'there goes a badger,' he should include in his thoughts some definite idea of the animal's place in the community to which it belongs, just as if he had said, 'there goes the vicar.'"
The niche concept was popularized by the zoologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson in 1958. Hutchinson wanted to know why there are so many different types of organisms in any one habitat.
The full range of environmental conditions (biological and physical) under which an organism can exist describes its fundamental niche. As a result of pressure from, and interactions with, other organisms (e.g. superior competitors), species are usually forced to occupy a niche that is narrower than this, and to which they are mostly highly adapted. This is termed the realized niche. The ecological niche has also been termed by G.E. Hutchinson a "hypervolume." This term defines the multi-dimensional space of resources (i.e., light, nutrients, structure, etc.) available to (and specifically used by) organisms. The term adaptive zone was coined by the paleontologist, George Gaylord Simpson, and refers to a set of ecological niches that may be occupied by a group of species that exploit the same resources in a similar manner. (After Root, 1967.)
It should be noted that Hutchinson's "niche" (a description of the ecological space occupied by a species) is subtly different from the "niche" as defined by Grinnell (an ecological role, that may or may not be actually filled by a species—see vacant niches).
Different species can hold similar niches and the same species may occupy different niches. The Australian grasslands species, though different from those of the Great Plains grasslands, occupy the same niche.
Once a niche is left vacant, other organisms can fill that position. For example, the niche that was left vacant by the extinction of the tarpan has been filled by other animals (in particular a small horse breed, the konik). Also, when plants and animals are introduced into a new environment, they have the potential to occupy or invade the niche or niches of native organisms, often outcompeting the indigenous species. Introduction of non-indigenous species to non-native habitats by humans often results in biological pollution by the exotic or invasive species.