The art and science of designing and building structures is not just the prerogative of humans, species in the animal kingdom do it too. Humans are not the only engineers in the world.
Anyone who has looked at a beehive, a termite mound, a bird nest or a spider web would agree that there are engineer animals amongst us. Many engineering designs made by humans are inspired by the sophisticated and complex structures built by animals.
So, it is evident that humans still have a lot to learn from such species that engineer their environments.
There have been some massive and fascinating structures built by animals. Environmental and architectural engineers could have a lot to learn from animals.
Some of the common animal-built structures that can be observed easily are beehives, burrows, beaver dams, spider webs, birds nests, termite mounds, ant colonies, and chimpanzee nests, for example.
These structures built by animals have some highly sophisticated features such as bait, traps, ventilation, temperature regulation, and chambers (or rooms) for specific purposes.
Engineers of the forest
Beaver dams trap large amounts of water, creating large ponds which the beavers use for their survival. These ponds increase the amount of habitat available to beavers, and encourage the growth of plants that beavers like to eat, and help the beavers evade predators, who can’t reach their underwater homes. Dam construction even changes the amount of carbon and nitrogen that gets recycled by the water.
Ecosystem engineers like the beaver are essential for the environment because of the ways in which they can create, repair, maintain, alter, and even destroy the habitat of other species in the ecosystem. They are known to have an immense impact on the richness and heterogeneity of the landscape in a particular area.
They are essential for maintaining the stability and health of the environment where they reside.
All organisms indeed have a direct or indirect impact on the ecosystem. But the engineering species or ecosystem engineers are the ones that play a crucial role in maintaining and affecting other organisms in the ecosystem.
Types of engineer animals
Allogenic and autogenic engineers are the two types that are found in the environment. Allogenic engineers alter the physical environment, while autogenic engineers modify the environment by modifying themselves.
These two types of engineer can transform both living things as well as non-living things around them.
As mentioned above, beavers can alter their ecosystem immensely, using the process of damming and clear-cutting. By this process, they also contribute towards changing the abundance and distribution of other organisms that reside in those areas.
They influence other living organisms by offering them resources to survive. Beaver dams create moat-like ponds filled with still water, which is used by the beavers to develop conical lodges made from mud, rocks, and timber. The body of water that surrounds it protects them from predators.
They have an incognito entry and exit from their lodge to the pond, through tunnels that are filled with water.
These dams have an ecological effect on other species too. They control several abiotic resources and create a habitat that certain other animals can use.
Hence, if these engineer species are protected, protection is automatically lent to other species too. Engineer animals like beavers can increase the complexity of the ecosystem and create room for many other organisms to live in the same region.
Apart from Beavers, other non-human organisms also have great lessons for human engineers and management.
Let’s check out some of the amazing lessons that can be learned from animals.
Lessons learned from animal engineer species
If you carefully observe some species, you will notice how they work in a very organized way. They can have excellent management skills, which humans can learn from.
- Every member of the honey bee hive has a particular job to do at a particular part of their life cycle, perhaps showing that having defined and highly structured systems can increase efficiency.
- Leaf cutter ants work together to grow their own food, which can demonstrate the benefits of cooperation.
- Migrating birds, such as the Canadian Geese, take turns flying in the most exhausting position, perhaps illustrating the importance of flexibility in leadership, based on the demands of the situation.
Similarly, various other animals and insects show great engineering and management skills that can teach humans a lot. There is no doubt that humans are also ecosystem engineers because they have modified the earth's environment immensely.
They may have also influenced how humans interact with their environment. We can live in many areas today only because of human engineering — changing our environment to suit our needs. Humans can also try and change the environment back to an earlier form, if proper action is taken at the right time.
Humans are engineering nature
Today, humans are also engineering nature through genetic engineering.
Genetic engineering is another way in which humans are altering their environment by altering the genetic makeup of other species. Modifying DNA or editing DNA with the gene-editing tool, CRISPR, can change or add particular characteristics in a species, such as a making plant resistant to certain pests. This is turn, can have an effect on the pest species and perhaps, also on other species that interact with that one.
Many ethical questions surround this topic of genetically-engineering animals. Is it a good thing to modify them without knowing the long-term repercussions for the animal and the environment?
In conclusion, engineer animals have played a vital role in naturally enhancing and building their habitats. Humans can learn from many of these species how to protect and restore ecological systems in a way that it is beneficial for all species.
If this is done well, humans can co-exist well with other organisms and create a more diverse ecology for everyone.