Ecosystem engineers are species that create, destroy, modify or maintain habitats in significant ways. These particularly productive animals create conditions that other species can benefit from, such as adequate shelter or food sources. While the activities of some ecosystem engineers sometimes appear to damage the environment, their activities are often crucial to the survival of other species. Here are 10 ecosystem engineers who serve and create habitats.
Beavers are among the most prominent ecosystem engineers. Their dam-building activities divert and stagnate streams, inundating adjacent areas and forming new wetlands that provide habitat for other aquatic organisms, from tiny zooplankton to amphibians. By removing small trees to build their dams, they also open up denser shaded areas, letting in sunlight. These changes create habitats for insects, birds, bats, amphibians, turtles, and even larger animals like deer.
Elephants have a number of behaviors that modify the environment and create habitats for other species. Their migration paths, taken in some cases for centuries, carve deep grooves in the ground. Their huge footprints fill with water after it rains, creating tiny ponds for frogs and other aquatic creatures. By growing on trees and removing bark to feed on leaves, elephants sometimes turn forests into grassland habitats, making the landscape welcoming for other animal species to graze.
Although elephants’ ability to move land and pull trees has destructive aspects, studies show that these habitat changes can lead to greater wealth in cash.
Research suggests that the peccary, which shares common ancestors with pigs, is indeed an ecosystem engineer. Commonly found in the rainforests of Central and South America, this snouted and tusked mammal takes root and makes its way through the rainforest, opening up territories for other species and altering the very structure of the forests. .
Its ponds, which are sometimes used for decades, have higher densities of frogs, aquatic insects, and other creatures than natural ponds, including bats, snakes, and mussels. Peccaries eat seeds and in so doing become important seed spreaders. In forests where peccaries have been reduced or eliminated, the composition of the forest is known to change significantly.
Some ecosystem engineers work in more subtle ways. The arctic fox, which lives in the tundra, soil chemistry engineers by building dens to house her young. Building dens is hard work, but once completed, these dens can be used for centuries. When used, these dens contain large amounts of nutrients from fox urine, feces, and their decaying prey. This increases the vegetation around the dens, creating greater plant diversity in the plots which in turn attracts animals like lemmings and reindeer.
Corals, like beavers, are ecosystem engineers par excellence. They create a physical structure that affects ocean currents, allowing a wide variety of plant and animal species to thrive. The fish are protected both from predators and, in some cases, from rapid water movements. Therefore, coral reefs and forests often provide nurseries as well as feeding and spawning grounds for many fish.
Kelp forests, which flourish in rocky, cold-water coastal areas, function as underwater forests. Their physical structure, a rich canopy, provides shelter and food for fish and other marine organisms.
Just as a terrestrial forest protects species from predators and creates a barrier against strong winds and light, the canopies of kelp forests provide habitat which protects from the strong currents and wave action, protects from light and changes water temperature. Like coral, kelp also provides spawning grounds and a nursery for fish. Kelp forests have been threatened both directly and indirectly by warming oceans in recent years.
Although frequently viewed as a pest by humans, termites help maintain soil health through nutrient cycling, ingest organic material and mineral debris, and move through large amounts of soil during mound construction, altering its texture and content. Their ability to aerate the soil by digging into it creates opportunities for rainwater to seep in, while their droppings help hold the soil together.
Especially in places with low soil fertility, termites play an important role in building soil health by contributing to the nutrient cycle, creating opportunities for plants to grow and flourish. Large termite mounds also provide protection for plants and seeds, helping to ensure their survival, while providing hiding places and hunting grounds for other animals.
By creating homes for themselves, red groupers inadvertently do the same for other species. Using their mouths and fins, these fish sweep up sand and sediment holes on and near the seabed. The cleared surfaces then become habitats for sessile (stationary) creatures like sponges, corals, anemones and other sea creatures to settle. As they grow, red groupers establish a complex physical structure that promotes the survival of many other species. In this way, these and other grouper species are associated with greater biodiversity.
Woodpeckers drill into the trunk of a tree to attract mates, catch insects, and create nesting cavities for their offspring. Once a woodpecker has abandoned its nesting cavity, other bird species unable to create such extensive holes on their own, often use the cavities for their own offspring, or simply as a protected place to roost.
Research indicates that the cavities designed by woodpeckers can offer better protection than natural tree cavities in many cases, as they are often designed with small openings that prevent predators from easily reaching the chicks, thus helping to ensure the survival of the offspring.
These burrowing rodents are extremely important for maintaining grasslands that provide important ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration. Prairie dogs create intricate underground colonies, sometimes called prairie dog towns, which also provide shelter for rabbits, amphibians, snakes, and birds. Construction of burrows also aerates the soil, redistributes nutrients and increases water infiltration, maintaining grasslands and inhibiting the growth of woody plants and invasive species. The native grasslands that prairie dogs help maintain further provide habitat for grazing animals as well as predators that prey on prairie dogs or other species attracted to their colonies.