Ecosystem Engineers


Ecosystem engineers, or more precisely physical ecosystem engineers, are organisms that change the abiotic environment by physically altering structure. As a consequence they often, but not invariably, have effects on other biota and their interactions, and on ecosystem processes. The physical ecosystem engineering concept interconnects a number of important ecological and evolutionary concepts and is particularly relevant to environmental management.

Keywords: extended organismal physics; structural modification by organisms; abiotic environmental change; effects on species and ecosystems

Figure 1.

General pathways of physical ecosystem engineering.

Figure 2.

Autogenic (a, b, c) and allogenic (d, e, f) ecosystem engineering. (a) Secondary oak (Quercus rubra) forest near Millbrook, NY, USA (changes microclimate; affects soil biogeochemistry and understory species). (b) Smooth cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora, in a tidal marsh in the La Plata estuary near Playa Peninos, Uruguay (attenuates storm surges, increases sedimentation and retains organic matter; affects biogeochemistry and creates protected habitat for other species). (c) Reefs of tube‐building polychaetes, Ficopomatus enigmaticus, an exotic species in Mar Chiquita coastal lagoon, Argentina (reef in foreground is c. 3 m across. Alters hydrodynamics, increases sedimentation; provides shelter for many invertebrates). (d) Riparian forest area transformed by the dam building activity of beaver, Castor canadensis, in Tierra del Fuego, Chile, where it is an exotic species (alters hydrology, sedimentation, light levels; affects biogeochemistry and species habitats). (e) Mound of leaf‐cutting ant, Atta sexdens, in the ‘blanqueal’ area near Fray Bentos, Uruguay (brings saline soil at depth to surface, eliminating most vegetation on mound). (f) The Southwestern Atlantic burrowing crab, Neohelice (Chasmagnathus) granulata, in Mar Chiquita coastal lagoon, Argentina (buries litter in excavation mounds; prevents litter export as a nutrient subsidy to adjacent estuary). Photo credits: (a) Jorge Gutiérrez, (b) Cesar Fagúndez, (c) Martín Bruschetti, (d) and (e) Clive Jones and (f) Pablo Ribeiro, all reproduced with permission.



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Further Reading

Cuddington K, Byers J, Wilson WG and Hastings A (2007) Ecosystem Engineers: Plants to Protists. New York: Academic Press.

Wright JP and Jones CG (2006) The concept of organisms as ecosystem engineers ten years on: progress, limitations, and challenges. BioScience 56: 203–209.

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How to Cite close
Gutiérrez, Jorge L, and Jones, Clive G(Dec 2008) Ecosystem Engineers. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0021226]