I guess it goes without saying; humans are not the only species who can do engineering. Although animals and plants are not engineers in the sense of titles and research, they are known for their building, creating, and digging abilities. In our ongoing series of cool engineering – today’s feature focuses on  ecosystem engineers capable of creating structures, tunnels, etc. They modify, maintain, and even destroy habitats. Although they are not human or mechanical engineers, these species play a vital part in preserving the health and stability of our global environment.

There are two types of ecosystem engineers, allogenic and autogenic. Allogenic engineers modify the environment they live in. Beavers are a great example of this, the dams that they build change allotment and profusion of multiple organisms in an area. Autogenic engineers modify their environment by physically modifying themselves. Trees are a primary example of this. Their constant growth and branch modification creates habitats for multiple species such as birds and squirrels. Marine environments also have ecosystem engineers like plankton, filter feeders, and coral.

In an article published in The News Tribune, animals are described as building their very own world right underneath our feet. Animals that dig tunnels and burrow underground are known as fossorial and have an instinctive intelligence. These animals live underground protected from predators and harsh weather conditions. There is, in fact, an entire ecosystem underground. Animals coexist and help one another. For example, mammal burrows provide habitats for other species of animals that are not capable of digging their own, such as snakes, lizards and other reptiles, as well as amphibians.

Invertebrates like spiders and beetles use these underground tunnels in order to travel and small mammals such as mice and rabbits make their homes in abandoned tunnels. Digging mammals also help to aerate and fertilize the soil, which in turn helps plants. There is a pocket gopher capable of moving two tons of soil to the surface per year, which is extremely beneficial where soil has become compacted. Moles are another great example of burrowing mammals. According to the article, “Most people tend the think of underground mammals as just having tunnels, but the mole burrows we walk across can be quite complex. There are tunnels to and from foraging and nest areas and many have special nooks and tunnels for drainage, multiple “bedrooms,” emergency exits, nurseries, pantries and bathrooms. They have to dig every room in their lodgings and maintain the tunnels so they do not collapse.”

The last example of animals as engineers are bird nests. Bird nests are not just bits of sticks, feathers and other materials, they are a home, a place to lay and incubate eggs, and require more thought than you might think. In an article published on Petoskey News, Jordan Price, a University of Michigan Biological Station faculty member examines the evolution of bird nests. He believes the shape and size of bird nests has evolved over time. An additional article published on Nature America, Inc. examines how bird nests used to look. According to the article, many biologists theorized that that bird nests evolved from bowl to dome, but a new study has emerged suggesting that it is really the other way around, dome to cup.

Researchers conducted an experiment to test the hypotheses by overlaying nest structure data on three different trees, thought to epitomize evolution among 281 Australian species. What they found? Species with particularly old lineage continue to build roofed structures, thus implying that their ancestors’ nests were dome shaped. They also found that cup shaped nests went through multiple stages of evolution. As stated in the article, “Cups may offer some advantages, such as being easier to build or to abandon if predators approach. “I think most people had assumed that roofed nests evolved from cups, in part because roofed nests are so unusual today,” says co-author J. Jordan Price, a professor of biology at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “This nicely illustrates how the current prevalence of a trait, such as cup nests, does not necessarily indicate the order of events during its evolutionary history.”

What examples of natural engineers are your favorite? Who inspired you to pursue this creative path?

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