Habitat Facts

Habitat ['hă-bə-tăt]

The natural home or environment of an animal, plant, or other organism.

What is a habitat?

Carpathian deer in natural habitat

A habitat is a special place where a plant or animal lives. Just like you have a home or place to live, so do animals and plants. When we talk about an animal's or a plant's home it is more like a neighborhood than a “house.” An animal needs five things to survive in its habitat:

  • food
  • water
  • shelter
  • air
  • a place to raise its young

Animals require different amounts of space. Habitats can be big like a forest or they can be much smaller like a burrow. Some animals defend a huge territory or roam over a large area. Some other animals need only a small amount of space and can put up with neighbors that live close by.

Fen in heathland habitat on forest edge

Just like you have to go to the store to get food, an animal leaves its “shelter” to get the things they need to live. If the animal's needs aren't met, it will move to a different habitat.

Different animals need different habitats. A fish, for example, needs clean water in which to live. A grasshopper, however, needs a big space where it can hop and a variety of leaves that it can eat.

Working together

There are many plants and animals that will share the same habitat. A single animal or plant is an organism. All the organisms of one species living together in an area form a population. The populations that interact together in a habitat form a community. The community of living things interacts with the non-living world around it to form an ecosystem. All the ecosystems make up the biosphere, the area of life on Earth.

Indian myna and the natural habitat

Because resources like water and food may be limited, plant and animal species often compete with each other for food and water. The only way that they can all live together is if they occupy slightly different niches or hold different “jobs” in the community. Many species may share a habitat, but no two species can occupy exactly the same niche. They all have their own specific jobs or niches in the community. The habitat is the physical space occupied by the plant or animals, while the niche is the role the plant or animal plays in the community found in the habitat.

Brown Squirrel eating an acorn. Animal series.

For example, the habitat of a squirrel tends to be trees or a forest. Its niche is to consume nuts and seeds, to spread and bury seeds which later germinate into new trees, and to be a food source for predators such as great horned owls.

There are lots of different habitat types on Earth. Habitat examples include lakes, streams, forests, deserts, grasslands, or even a drop of water. All habitats on the Earth are part of the biosphere. Because the Earth is always changing, habitats are constantly changing. Global habitats that have similar climates and plants are called biomes.

So what's a critical habitat?

When a species is threatened — that is, likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future — it becomes important to protect its habitat. Certain areas become a critical habitat, regions that are protected by law to prevent destroying, removing, or bothering those species so that they can produce young and continue to thrive.

Grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park

In 1975, the grizzly bears of Yellowstone National Park were listed as a “threatened species.” Wildlife biologists estimated there were just over 130 grizzlies remaining in the Yellowstone area. But through the protection of their habitat and efforts to make sure that they could survive, their numbers have increased and their territory has expanded. Things are definitely looking up for the bears!

Top 10 Questions

October 2008

Thanks to Sara Focht, Wildlife Educator with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game; and Jon Rachael, Regional Wildlife Manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game for the answers.

  1. Is there an animal with more than one habitat?

    There are several animals with more than one habitat. A good example would be a bird that migrates. Idaho has birds that migrate here in the summer and then in the winter they migrate to the Southern United States, or even South America; and they have a very different habitat down there. That would be a good example of an animal that has two very different habitats and they need them both. (From Andrew in Mrs. Schweitzer's class at Riverside Elementary School in Boise)

  2. What different types of habitats are there in Idaho?

    Idaho has a variety of habitats. Sagebrush habitat, that's a big one in Southern Idaho. It's really important for a lot of different species; over 200 species depend on sagebrush. We have conifer forests that are an important habitat for owls and large game, as they like to hide there. Riparian habitats are any sort of water habitat (riparian is a strange word, but it's just another word to say "water"). That could be any kind of water; it could be a stream, a lake, a pond, and those habitats are very important because we know that all animals need food, water, shelter, and space. (From Isabelle in Mrs. Amburn's class at Cynthia Mann Elementary School in Boise)

  3. Is there an animal that exists in all habitats?

    There may not be an animal that we can think of but instead a group and that's insects. Insects are in almost every habitat. It would be different insects per habitat. Cockroaches seem to be able to survive just about anywhere. Individual animals have particular needs that need to be met for the way they're designed and the way they live. For instance, you wouldn't have a mammal that could live under water extensively like a fish and you wouldn't have a fish that would do very well on land for very long. So the most diverse group would definitely be insects. (From Cheyenne in Mrs. Rice's class at Mill Creek Elementary School in Middleton)

  4. Can a change of habitat result in extinction?

    A change of habitat, if it's great enough, or a loss of habitat, could certainly cause extinction. Loss of habitat is the number one factor in why animals go extinct. (From Caleb in Mrs. McCoy's class at Donnelly Elementary School in Donnelly)

  5. What is the smallest habitat?

    Spiders have a pretty small habitat but there are most likely even smaller insects than that. For instance, a dog might have mites inside his ears, and that's a habitat - that's a pretty small space. You can even get down to a habitat as small as what an amoeba lives in. (From Gabby in Mrs. Hunt's class at Cynthia Mann Elementary School in Boise)

  6. What happens to animals when their habitat is burned?

    When the habitat is burned it's pretty much gone for those animals. They have to move someplace else and the original habitat needs to grow back again. It will grow in again but it will take time. Sometimes a fire can create a better habitat for different animals. For instance, if you have a forest, a deep, dark, dense forest, it wouldn't be so great for elk, but after a fire the grasses grow and then the elk love it. Again, the habitat will replenish, it just takes time. (From Mrs. Fogg's class at Horizon Elementary School in Jerome)

  7. Can exhaust or air pollution destroy habitat?

    If there is enough exhaust it could hurt some of the elements in a habitat. On a global scale, some people believe the exhaust or pollution contributes to global warming, and global warming certainly can change habitats, maybe at a faster rate of change than they would normally. In addition to that global warming is also a contributor to acid rain, which changes the pH balance of the environment and also impacts habitat. (From Kameron from Mrs. Dransfield's class at Mary McPherson Elementary School in Meridian)

  8. Are elk losing their habitat?

    Habitat for elk and other species face a variety of threats. Sometimes elk are impacted when we have fires go through, particularly on winter range where elk need to spend the winter in smaller spaces. If that habitat gets burned they are definitely at a higher risk of dying of starvation in the winter. There are other threats including development of houses for people where the elk live. We also have threats of weed species that take over the natural foods that elk seek out. (From Cameron in Mrs. Fryer's class at Clearwater Elementary School in Kooskia)

  9. Why do animals travel so far out of one particular area?

    Some animals travel a long way because the habitat they are in loses a component. For instance, in the winter birds lose their food source, like insects. So they have to go somewhere else to find a new habitat. (From Isaiah from Mrs. Fryer's class at Clearwater Elementary School in Kooskia)

  10. Are there habitats that are affected by oil drilling?

    There are some habitats that could be fragmented by oil rigs, where they put the drill down deep into the earth. A habitat could be large and solid so the animal could move about underground in that habitat, but after the drill goes down it might leave the ground in pieces so the animals wouldn't be able to move from place to place freely. (From Josie in Mrs. Willis's class at Jefferson Middle School in Caldwell)