10 Ecosystem Engineers That Create New Habitats

Ecosystem engineers create conditions for other species to thrive in.

Tropical fish swim around a coral reef.

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Ecosystem engineers are species that create, destroy, modify, or maintain habitats in significant ways. These uniquely productive animals create conditions for other species to benefit from, such as adequate shelter or food sources. While the activities of some ecosystem engineers at times appear to damage the environment, their activities are often crucial to the survival of other species. Here are 10 ecosystem engineers that serve and create habitats.

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A beaver in Alaska stands at the edge of a pond with leafy branches.

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Beavers are among the most prominent ecosystem engineers. Their dam-building activities divert and stagnate streamflows, flooding adjacent areas, and forming new wetlands that provide habitat for other aquatic organisms, from tiny zooplankton to amphibians. By removing small trees to construct their dams, they also open up denser shaded areas, allowing in sunlight. These changes create habitats for insects, birds, bats, amphibians, turtles, and even larger animals like deer.

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An elephant stands on a rocky grassland in the foreground with a herd of animals and trees behind.

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Elephants have a number of behaviors that change the environment and create habitats for other species. Their migration trails, which in some cases have been used for centuries, sculpt the land with deep grooves. Their enormous footprints fill with water after rain, creating tiny ponds for frogs and other aquatic creatures. By pushing over trees and removing bark to feed on leaves, elephants sometimes transform forests into grassland habitats, making the landscape welcoming for other animal species to graze.

Although elephants’ capacity to displace earth and strip trees has destructive aspects, studies find that these habitat modifications can lead to higher species richness.

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A Chacoan peccary stands with its nose in mud in rocks at the base of a tree.

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Research suggests that the peccary, which shares common ancestors with pigs, is indeed an ecosystem engineer. Commonly found in Central and South American rainforests, this snouted, tusked mammal roots and chomps its way through the rainforest, opening up territory for other species and changing the very structure of forests.

Its wallows, 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 doing so, become important seed spreaders. In forests where peccaries have been reduced or eliminated, the forest composition has been known to change significantly. 

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Arctic Fox

An Arctic fox kit emerges from its den in a rocky ledge.

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Some ecosystem engineers work in more subtle ways. The Arctic fox, which lives on the tundra, engineers soil chemistry by constructing dens to shelter its pups. Den construction is hard work, but once done, these dens may be used for centuries. When in use, these dens contain large amounts of nutrients from fox urine, feces, and their decomposing prey. This increases vegetation around the dens, creating greater plant diversity in patches that in turn attract animals like lemmings and reindeer. 

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Orange fish swim through strands of fire coral.

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Corals, like beavers, are quintessential ecosystem engineers. They create a physical structure that affects ocean currents, making opportunities for a great diversity of plants and animal species to thrive. Fish are afforded shelter from both predators and, in some cases, rapid water movement. Consequently, coral reefs and forests often provide nurseries as well as feeding and spawning grounds for many fish.

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An underwater scene of sun filtering through kelp, illuminating fish and seagrass.

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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 from strong winds and light, kelp forest canopies provide habitat that protects from strong currents and wave action, shield against light, and alter water temperature. Like coral, kelp also provides spawning grounds and a nursery for fish. Kelp forests have been threatened both directly and indirectly by ocean warming in recent years. 

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Termites at a small hole in the timber.

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Although frequently considered pests by humans, termites help maintain soil health through nutrient cycling, ingest organic material and mineral debris, and move around large quantities of soil during mound-building, modifying its texture and content. Their ability to aerate the soil by burrowing into it creates opportunities for rainwater to permeate, while their excrement helps hold the soil together.

Especially in places with low soil fertility, termites play an important role in building soil health by contributing to nutrient cycling, creating opportunities for plants to grow and flourish. Large termite mounds also offer protection to plants and seeds, helping to ensure their survival, while providing hiding places and hunting grounds for other animals. 

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Red Groupers

A red grouper swims along a rocky ledge at the bottom of the sea.

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By creating homes for themselves, red groupers inadvertently do the same for other species. Using their mouth and fins, these fish sweep sand and sediment from holes on and near the seafloor. The cleared surfaces then become habitats for sessile (immobile) creatures like sponges, coral, anemones, and other marine creatures to settle. As they grow, red groupers establish a complex physical structure that supports the survival of many other species. In this way, these and other grouper species are associated with greater biodiversity.

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Close-up of woodpecker on tree trunk perched on a cavity.

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Woodpeckers drill into the trunk of a tree to attract mates, grab insects, and create nesting cavities for their offspring. Once a woodpecker abandons its nesting cavity, other bird species incapable of creating such extensive holes on their own often utilize the cavities for their own offspring, or simply as a protected place for roosting.

Research indicates that the cavities engineered by woodpeckers may offer greater protection than natural tree cavities in many cases because they are often designed with small openings that prevent predators from easily reaching chicks, helping to ensure the survival of offspring.

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Prairie Dogs

A prairie dog emerges from a hole surrounded by vegetation.

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These burrowing rodents are incredibly important to maintaining grasslands that provide important ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration. Prairie dogs create complex underground colonies, sometimes called prairie dog towns, that also provide shelter for rabbits, amphibians, snakes, and birds. Burrow construction 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 additionally provide habitat for grazing animals as well as predators that feed on prairie dogs or other species attracted to their colonies.  

View Article Sources
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  2. Beck, Harald, et al. "Do Neotropical Peccary Species (Tayassuidae) Function as Ecosystem Engineers for Anurans?" Journal of Tropical Ecology, vol. 26, no. 4, 2010, pp. 407-414.

  3. Gharajehdaghipour, Tazarve, et al. "Arctic Foxes as Ecosystem Engineers: Increased Soil Nutrients Lead to Increased Plant Productivity on Fox Dens." Scientific Reports, vol. 6, 2016, pp. 24020., doi:10.1038/srep24020

  4. Hondolero, Dominic and Edwards, Matthew S. "Changes in Ecosystem Engineers: The Effects of Kelp Forest Type on Currents and Benthic Assemblages in Kachemak Bay, Alaska." Marine Biology, vol. 164, 2017, pp. 81., doi:10.1007/s00227-017-3111-3

  5. Layton, Cayne, et al. "Resilience and Stability of Kelp Forests: The Importance of Patch Dynamics and Environment-Engineer Feedbacks." PLOS ONE, vol. 14, no. 1, 2019., doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0210220

  6. Jouquet, Pascal, et al. "Influence of Termites on Ecosystem Functioning. Ecosystem Services Provided by Termites." European Journal of Soil Biology, vol. 47, 2011, pp. 215-222., doi:10.1016/j.ejsobi.2011.05.005

  7. Catalina-Allueva, Patricia and Martin, Carlos A. "The Role of Woodpeckers (Family: Picidae) as Ecosystem Engineers in Urban Parks: A Case Study in the City of Madrid (Spain)." Urban Ecosystems, 2021., doi:10.1007/s11252-020-01087-y

  8. Hardin, Faith O., et al. "Secondhand Homes: The Multilayered Influence of Woodpeckers as Ecosystem Engineers." Ecology and Evolution, vol. 11, no. 16, 2021, pp. 11425-11439., doi:10.1002/ece3.7932

  9. Martinez-Estevez, Lourdes, et al. "Prairie Dog Decline Reduces the Supply of Ecosystem Services and Leads to Desertification of Semiarid Grasslands." PLOS ONE, vol. 8, no. 10, 2013, pp. e75229., doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075229