Metapopulation theory posits that suitable habitat may frequently be unoccupied because it is isolated and has never been colonized or has been colonized followed by local extinction and has not yet been recolonized. This research addresses the question of how to identify suitable, unoccupied habitat and distinguish it from unsuitable habitat. We are studying a group of six species of forest understory herbs chosen to represent a broad range of habitat distribution and dispersal characteristics. Our aim is to quantify the fundamental niche of these species (sensu Hutchinson 1957), in terms of variables such as soil moisture and temperature, by developing a set of habitat specific demographic stage transition models (i.e. conditional on such environmental variables) for these species. These models, in combination with data from field surveys of the local distribution of the species, will be used to develop testable predictive maps of the distribution of suitable habitat which can be compared to the observed distribution of the plants. We hypothesize that both dispersal ability and the distribution of suitable habitat are important determinants of the actual distribution of species. The goal of this research is both to further our conceptual understanding of the relationships between habitat requirements and species distributions, and to provide a practical approach to operationalizing the concept of "suitable habitat."