Biological builders like beavers, elephants, and shipworms re-engineer their environments. How this affects their ecological network is the subject of new research, which finds that increasing the number of “ecosystem engineers” stabilises the entire network against extinctions.
When we think of engineering in nature, we tend to think of beavers—the tree-felling, dam-building rodents whose machinations can shape the landscape by creating lakes and changing the path of rivers. But beavers are far from the only organisms to reshape their environment. A squirrel who inadvertently plants oak trees is also an “ecosystem engineer”—roughly speaking, any organism whose impact on the environment outlasts its own lifetime. The coolest of these biological builders, according to Justin Yeakel, might be the shipworm, which eats through rocks in streams, creating cozy abodes for future invertebrate inhabitants. MORE