Ecosystem engineers play an important role in maintaining nature’s ecological balance.
The entire world is moving towards high economic & industrial growth and it is unfortunate to see that many of us have entirely ignored the importance of environmental stability.
We live in a society where jobs help to keep running it smoothly. From a technician, engineer, doctor, sanitation worker, restaurant chefs, or even farmers are playing their crucial role in our community.
Many species, generally referred to as ecosystem engineers, are also a part of an ecosystem that is playing a role in keeping the vast ecosystem running smoothly.
Today, ecosystem engineers co-exist with other species in an environment to retain ecological balance.
So, are you curious to know about the different organisms as ecosystem engineers, their behavior, and their impact on ecology and environmental stability? Well, this article might be the answer to your questions about ecosystem engineers.
WHAT ARE ECOSYSTEM ENGINEERS?
Ecosystem engineers are organisms that regulate the accessibility of resources to other species directly or indirectly.
To do this, they change the state of different matters, which could be biotic or abiotic (living or non-living) materials. This is done by creating modifying and maintaining habitats.
To those who are wondering, what is a habitat? In ecology, the habitat is a natural home or environment of the organism in which they live.
The ecosystem engineers work by maintaining, modifying, creating, or re-creating their habitat. The result would be the change in the physical state of different materials. As a result, the by-product serves as resources for the other species.
Every organism plays an essential ecological balance. These roles can be classified as directly or indirectly.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Ecosystem engineering is not the direct supply of resources, for example, food in the form of leaves, vegetables, meat, and fruits.
The specialty of ecosystem engineering is that it must change the properties of resources provided by others, such as quantity, quality, and distribution.
Ecosystem engineering does not include direct provision of the biomass supplied by autogenic engineers or allogenic engineers.
TYPES OF ECOSYSTEM ENGINEERS
The broad categorization of ecosystem engineers comprises of two main types – autogenic and allogenic engineers.
Autogenic engineers such as trees or corals bring the change in the environment by their physical properties (using their living or dead tissues).
On the other hand, allogenic engineers do this by changing the physical form of biotic or abiotic materials from one state to another by mechanical or any other procedure.
Organisms are considered engineers when they regulate the provision of resources. The act of predators hunting the prey is not ecosystem engineering.
EXAMPLES OF ECOSYSTEM ENGINEERS
Beavers (allogenic engineers)
This allogenic engineer takes materials from the environment which is a living tree and then changes its state to another form or state as a non-living tree.
Beavers usually do this to build a beaver dam to slow down the flow of a river or a stream. As a result, there would be a formation of a deep and quiet pond where they can make their home or lodge and have protection against all kinds of predators.
In this case, beavers make a dam for themselves. This pond will be their source of water, or it can be used as a habitat by other organisms. Thus, by the construction of a beaver dam, a beaver indirectly supplies water to other microorganisms, which is an act of engineering.
Beavers are not the direct suppliers of water or resource in the manner as prey is a direct source of food for the predators. Hence, beavers are an excellent example of ecosystem engineers as we have studied their great importance in ecology.
Trees and Coral Reefs
A simple example to understand the importance of ecosystem engineers in ecological balance is the growth of autogenic engineers such as trees or coral reefs.
In this case, the development of living coral tissues or the production of trees branches and leaves cannot be considered as engineering. But the growth of the reef or forest results in a physical change, which also changes the environment and supplies resources to different organisms.
The growth of seagrass changes the seabed, siltation, and velocity of waves giving the food supply and providing habitat to different organisms.
Some Controversy In Trees And Coral Reefs As Ecosystem Engineers
It can be the point of argument that the growth of branches, trunks, leaves coral, or other similar biological substances is not taken as ecosystem engineering.
Some factors are altered by trees such as humidity, temperature, wind speed, exposure to light, and essential elements such as hydrology and soil erosion. Also, the growth of the coral reef modulates the speed of waves and the rate of siltation.
It should be noted that many habitats are built for inhabitants by the growth of these autogenic engineers. As a result, many inhabitants are dependent on these autogenic engineers for the resources. Without these, organisms would disappear.
The ecosystem engineering is not entirely explored yet, and maybe it can never be explored to its fullest.
So it can be argued that the development of trees and corals should be considered a part of ecosystem engineering.
But to be an ecosystem engineer, the organism has to regulate the supply of resources from other materials for the different species rather than direct provision of resources by being the resource provider themselves.
Earthworms are considered as allogenic ecosystem engineers as they alter the properties of soil, which and have a considerable impact on the composition of the ground. Thus, it makes resources available for other organisms such as plants and different microorganisms.
They are also known as soil engineers. Their activity includes burrowing, mixing, and casting of soil.
Their impact on the soil comprises a change in mineral and organic composition of soils that affects the nutrition cycle of other organisms. They alter hydrology and drainage in which it affects the plant population and its dynamics.
Yes, you read it right! Humans are ecosystem engineers, and they do various activities such as agriculture, construction of canals, and construction of different structure which affects the environment. Let us see how humans have an impact on the environment.
We are an obvious example of allogenic ecosystem engineers. We use different tools specialized in engineering. However, they often do engineering for some other purpose or with some intentions.
We often have no idea of the consequences of our activities as engineers. As a result, we harm the environment very often. Some of their engineering examples include the construction of dams, canals, and forest clearance, etc.
Furthermore, humans construct nesting boxes for birds, bees, and hives. Construction of human-made lakes and ponds is also a good example. We build harbors and sea walls to reduce damage from sea waves. Plowing by farmers to grow crops is also a resource for other organisms.
Different activities such as heating, air-conditioning, plumbing can be classified as heavy or light. Additionally, organisms also do all such jobs, so there is no difference in organizing such activities as human or non-human engineering.
SOME MORE EXAMPLES
Below are some more examples of organisms as well as their impact on the environment.
These organisms create wallows that retain water in droughts. It then provides resources for fish and fish-eating birds.
2. Rabbits and Oryctolagus
These ecosystem engineers dig extensive burrows that are occupied by other species such as Vulpes.
3. Marine Phytoplankton
They bloom and scatter the phytoplankton particles. It then absorbs light in the upper layer of water. They enhance the warming of water on the surface, which is the reason for the development of thermocline.
4. Microalgae in sea ice
They do scatter and absorb light within the ice and also in the underlying seawater. Thus, it helps to reduce the strength of ice and becomes the reason for enhancing the melting and breaking of ice.
5. Fresh Water Phytoplankton
They intercept light in the upper water column, which leads to the shallowness of mixing depth and lower heat content in water.
6. Cyanobacteria and other non-vascular plants
They exude mucilaginous organic compounds, which result in gluing the soil particles and natural compounds that alter infiltration, percolation, retention, and evaporation of water.
7. Bog Moss
These ecosystem engineers build blanket and raised bogs with the help of accumulated peat, which is the reason for significant changes in hydrology.
8. Submerged Macrophytes
Create weed beds that alter exposure to light, steepen vertical temperature gradient, make the flow retarded, and enhance sedimentation.
9. Higher plants
As the higher plants leave dead leaves, it is then changed in the form of litter. In which case, it alters the microenvironment of soil, breaking the surface structure. As a result, it affects drainage by the transfer of heat and gases.
Furthermore, they are also a physical barrier for seeds and seedlings.
10. Terrestrial plants
Also known as Fauna, terrestrial plants grow structures that impound water, which forms small aquatic habitats supporting a highly specialized insect.
11. Marine Meiofauna
Responsible for bio deposition, bioturbation, pore water circulation, and fecal pellet production. They change the physical, chemical, and biological properties and sediments.
Additionally, they also change the direction of the magnitude of nutrient fluxes and increase oxygenation of sediments.
12. Marine Burrowing Macrofauna
These organisms burrow into a redistribute sediment, which results in creating dynamic sediments and active transportation of solutes into burrows.
13. Marine Zooplankton
These organisms concentrate on facial pellets which are very important in vertical transport and exchange of elements on organic compounds in the ocean.
Snails eat lichen and the rock they grow in, which then increases the rate of nitrogen cycling and soil formation.
15. Bagworms and Caterpillars
They eat endolithic lichens and construct larval shelters, which results in a small increase in erosion rate and nutrient cycling of soil formation.
16. Mound-Building Termites
They do gallery construction and redistribute the soil particles, which is the reason for changing the mineral and organic composition of the soil. Additionally, they alter hydrology and drainage.
17. Ants and Formicidae
They too, do gallery construction and redistribute the soil particles as mound-building termites. Their impact is the same as they change the local structure and composition of the soil.
As rats do the digging and tunneling, they move large quantities of soil. In which it increases aeration and creates a distinctive ecosystem as a result.
19. Prairie Dogs
Their activities include continuous intense disruption by burrowing and creating soil mounds, which changes the physical and chemical properties of soil.
20. Pocket Gophers
Construct tunnels and move soil to surface mounds. It becomes the reason for altered patterns and rates of soil developments, nutrient availability, and microtopography as a result.
21. Indian Crested Porcupine
These ecosystem engineers keep digging for food, which causes the disposal of runoff water to the groundwater table.
They do physical disturbance and destruction of trees and shrubs. This causes vegetation changes, alteration of fire regime, and affects food supply and the population of other animals. Additionally, it also alters the soil formation and biogeochemical cycling.
23. Crustose Coralline Algae
These organisms overgrow and cement together on the outer algal ridge of the barrier reef, which causes the protection of coral against significant wave action.
24. Ribbed Mussels
They form dense mussel beds which protect sediments and prevent physical erosion and disturbance.
As we have studied examples that are easy to classify, there are still some problematic cases for the definition of ecosystem engineers.
Pollinators And Gall Formers
Pollinators regulate the provision of resources for seed predators. Gall formers build such structures that are not only used by them for shelter and food, but inquilines also use these structures.
Unlike the gall formers, pollinators cannot be engineers due to the process of self-pollination. There is a possibility for gall formers to be noted as engineers as they physically maintain plant tissues and make habitats for other organisms.
Even though we researched and gathered data from reliable resources, it is still impossible to explore all the ecosystem engineers.
Researchers and scientists still continue to study the examples over the years. One thing is for sure now – the behavior of these ecosystem engineers is indeed essential to maintain the ecological balance and the different species.