Ecosystem Engineers

By Sarah Skebba | Trail Experiences Coordinator

For people, we rely on engineers to build our homes and cars, design our waterways and roads, and produce and control energy. Well, plants and animals also rely their own type of engineer for a lot of the same things! An ecosystem engineer is technically defined as any organism which creates, modifies, or maintains an ecosystem.

Prairie dogs are one of the best examples of an ecosystem engineer. Being very accomplished diggers, many animals, including the endangered Black-Footed Ferret, rely on them for their burrows. The ferrets also rely on them for dinner, as prairie dogs are a favorite meal and important prey item for many species. All of the digging the prairie dogs do aerates the soil, allowing the spread of oxygen and other nutrients. They help populate the now nutrient soil with lots of seeds which they scatter in their droppings. Along with seeds, they eat lots of grasses and new forming bushing and trees, allowing the landscape to stay open. Without prairie dogs, a lot would change!

Elephants might give prairie dogs a run for their engineering salary with the huge variety of roles they perform. They forge new paths through forests by knocking down large trees which can then be used by other animals. Using their tusks and front legs, elephants can dig holes to reach water below the surface. And don’t even get me started on their poop! Not only is it filled with nutrients that act as fertilizer, they also transport seeds around as they move between regions relieving themselves. It is thought that elephants are the reason wild mangos still exist!

Ecosystem engineers come in all shapes and sizes and contribute to the health of their ecosystem in a wide array of ways. They can be tiny, like an Earthworm, who eats dead plant matter and recycles the nutrients back into the soil so lots of beautiful plants can grow. They can also be HUGE like Giant Kelp, which act like an underwater forest and provide a home to many, many species! And perhaps the most well-known ecosystem engineer, the beaver, designs and controls water ways by building damns. The dams help filter toxins from the water and create wetland habitats, which lots of other animals happily use!

Without ecosystem engineers, many ecosystems would collapse or change drastically! Just like we rely on engineers to help things run smoothly, so does the natural world.