Ecosystem engineer

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Beavers are the stereotypical ecosystem engineer because of the effects their dams have on channel flow, geomorphology, and ecology.
Kelp are autogenic ecosystem engineers, by building the necessary structure for kelp forests

An ecosystem engineer is any organism that creates or significantly modifies habitats. Jones et al.[1] identified two different types of ecosystem engineers:

  • Allogenic engineers modify the environment by mechanically changing materials from one form to another. Beavers are archetypal ecosystem engineers; in the process of clearcutting and damming, beavers alter their ecosystem extensively. Different types and numbers of other organisms will thrive in the region of a beaver dam than would in a non-dammed region. Caterpillars that create shelters from leaves are also creating shelters for other organisms which may occupy them either simultaneously or subsequently.[2]
  • Autogenic engineers modify the environment by modifying themselves. As trees grow, their trunks and branches create habitats for other living things. In the tropics, lianas connect trees, which allow many animals to travel exclusively through the forest canopy.[3]

Humans are very significant allogenic engineers, though this interaction is more studied in the field of human ecology.

Introduced species are often ecosystem engineers. Kudzu, a leguminous plant introduced to the southeast U.S., changes the distribution and number of animal and bird species in the areas it invades. It also crowds out native plant species. The zebra mussel is an ecosystem engineer in North America. By providing refuge from predators, it encourages the growth of freshwater invertebrates through increasing microhabitats. Light penetration into infected lakes also improves, resulting in an increase in algae.

In marine environments, filter feeders and plankton are ecosystem engineers because they alter turbidity and light penetration, controlling the depth at which photosynthesis can occur.[4] This in turn limits the primary productivity of benthic and pelagic habitats [5] and influences consumption patterns between trophic groups.[6]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Jones CG, Lawton JH and Shachak M 1994. Organisms as ecosystem engineers. Oikos 69: 373-386
  2. ^ Jones CG, Lawton JH and Shachak M 1997. Positive and negative effects of organisms as physical ecosystem engineers. Ecology 78:1946-1957
  3. ^ "Ecosystem engineer". 
  4. ^ Berke, Sarah K. 2012. Functional Groups of Ecosystem Engineers: A Proposed Classification with Comments on Current Issues. Integrative and Comparative Biology, 50:147–157.
  5. ^ Abrahams MV, Kattenfeld MG. 1997. The role of turbidity as a constraint on predator-prey interactions in aquatic environments. Behavior Ecology & Sociobiology 40:169–74.
  6. ^ Hartman EJ, Abrahams MV. 2000. Sensory compensation and the detection of predators: the interaction between chemical and visual information. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences 267:571–75.