In nature, it is so cool to see how smart animals are with their incredible engineering techniques. Obviously, there are the well known beaver dams and termite mounds, and even less known architecture, like dikes that prairie dogs dig to help prevent floods in their burrows, but do you know of any other examples of engineering or architecture in nature? I find it interesting and would just generally like to hear some different types!
There is some evidence that Mima Mounds were created by gophers.
But most animal architecture isn’t due to being “smart” in the sense that the animals have a creative mind that they are using to solve a new problem (like what humans use to design and build a bridge). But rather, genetically programmed behaviors. Not to say that some animals don’t have various degrees of creative abilities–just that most architecture isn’t the product of those sorts of abilities.
Many birds create very complex nests and other structures (unique to their species)–without every having seen a nest being built–and they do so as the result of programmed behaviors. On the opposite end of the spectrum, few humans can create much of anything without much observation and training–we almost totally lack programmed behaviors that result in architecture. Chimps, despite their large brains, only create fairly simple nests–but their nest-building does benefit from watching more experienced members of their group.
There are a couple of iNat projects focusing on animal architecture–which are fun to browse.
I just finished a coastal ecology course last week in Georgia. We talked about things like mangrove forests, reefs and oyster beds and the stabilizing effect they have on the shoreline (they all help to scatter waves that erode the shoreline and keep the soil fixed in place). Dune environments are also stabilized by vegetation and provide a barrier to storm surges between the shore and areas inland. It’s not exactly as if there was intent behind these structures, but these are important examples of ‘natural engineering’ that help keep our coastlines healthy. Humans can help by allowing space along the shore for these environments to develop (rather than developing every inch up to the sea and wasting obscene amounts of resources in hardening infrastructure to fight the inevitable effects of storm and sea level rise) and doing things like sediment placements to help encourage establishment of the species that can stabilize these areas.
That’s a difficult one to answer as there are so many good examples out there.
Birds especially make some amazingly complicated nests. The last 2 years I’ve had some Common Tailorbirds nesting in the young avocado saplings I have growing next to my front door. The care and technique they use to sew the leaves together to hold the nest is pretty amazing.
The other day there was a Bagworm Moth caterpillar, Psychidae family, trundling around in my patch of lalot (Piper sarmentosum). These fellows make cool wood log type structures to hide in and wander around looking like rustic hermit crabs.
Many burrowing animals, make ingenious use of differential air flow to ensure fresh air deep in their burrows, and have passageways and entrances/exits built specifically to facilitate this.
The nests that great apes make appear at first glance to just be jumbles of branches and leaves, but they’re actually more complex and deliberately engineered than previously recognized.
You might find some interesting examples in this project which collects examples of animal engineering.
For word nerds like me
We had weaverbirds nesting in our Porterville garden. The males would fly off to the hardware store to carefully choose the next bit. They didn’t harvest the grass from immediately nearby. And imagine tying knots, using your mouth and your toes.
Limnephilidae and Glossosomatidae larvae.
Magdalena Szechyńska-Hebda, Maria Lewandowska, Damian Witoń, Yosef Fichman, Ron Mittler, Stanisław M Karpiński, Aboveground Plant-to-Plant Electrical Signaling Mediates Network Acquired Acclimation, The Plant Cell, 2022;, koac150, https://doi.org/10.1093/plcell/koac150
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I was thinking about the Tricopera as well. Some amazing structures, made with all sorts of things. I’m looking at a picture of a Limnephilid case (Philarctus sp.) made from small shells. Helicopsychidae make snail shaped cases from sand.
Some Homoptera build little cases on leaves that look like little shells.
A giant mammal that lived 10,000 years ago in Brazil dug gigantic tunnels called “palaeoburrows”. And digging those tunnels required claws. Huge ones.
Agelenidae funnel webs.
If you believe that engineering is solving complex problems with analysis and strategic implementation of available resources… presenting Portia, with a familiar voiceover…
This is a case created by the larva of a small moth (a Case Bearer moth) in order to protect the larva.
The material it is made of is a piece cut out of an Elm leaf (the food plant) and then somehow glued together down one side.
Something I’m currently observing in my backyard is the relationship between ants and aphids. Ants often treat aphids like we do cows, cultivating them to collect milk, or in the ant’s case, honeydew. Now with that in mind, I’ve seen the ants in my backyard herd the aphids onto a single leave and then somehow curl the leaf up to conceal the aphids. These ‘barns’ are all over the place and are constantly patrolled by the ants. It’s very interesting to watch. Sometimes I see an ant actually transporting an aphid with its mandibles, though, the ant may just be preying on the aphid.
So yeah, my backyard is full of tiny farmers which live in trees. Pretty cool!
The local Caddisfly larvae use whatever is at hand to build cases around their bodies. I’ve seen ones with gravel cases, cases made from redwood tree needles, fresh water clam shell fragments and sand.
Apparently (?) some artists (?) trick them into using gold and pearls for their cases.
I have a love/hate relationship with these little ant farmers and their aphid cows… in my garden, they’re particularly fond of Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum). They don’t care about fruit/flowers but are very damaging to the leaves, often leaving shiny drops of honeydew on the leaves below, as an indicator of their presence.
A bit gross maybe, but I read somewhere that aphids are edible, absorbing only any toxins from whatever plant they’re eating. I’ve noticed this to be true with my Catnip (Nepeta cataria). I like to think they’re like flavor crystals for my cats.
Also, I recently learned that there are plant/plant-family specific aphids. Not sure how ants go about farming those exactly…
Interesting, I didn’t know that some aphids were plant-specific. Perhaps ants prefer some aphid species over others for convenience? For my area, it’s the same species of ant farming the same species of aphid.
Erodium seed corkscrews.