The diversity of life is ultimately generated by evolution, and much attention has focused on the rapid evolution of ecological traits. Yet, the tendency for many ecological traits to instead remain similar over time [niche conservatism (NC)] has many consequences for the fundamental patterns and processes studied in ecology and conservation biology. Here, we describe the mounting evidence for the importance of NC to major topics in ecology (e.g. species richness, ecosystem function) and conservation (e.g. climate change, invasive species). We also review other areas where it may be important but has generally been overlooked, in both ecology (e.g. food webs, disease ecology, mutualistic interactions) and conservation (e.g. habitat modification). We summarize methods for testing for NC, and suggest that a commonly used and advocated method (involving a test for phylogenetic signal) is potentially problematic, and describe alternative approaches. We suggest that considering NC: (1) focuses attention on the within-species processes that cause traits to be conserved over time, (2) emphasizes connections between questions and research areas that are not obviously related (e.g. invasives, global warming, tropical richness), and (3) suggests new areas for research (e.g. why are some clades largely nocturnal? why do related species share diseases?).