What Is An Ecosystem Engineer?

Contents of one clump of G. salicornia from a shallow reef at Ala Moana. These include sponges, ascidians, larval fish, invasive and native algae, and crabs. Other clumps contained juvenile sea cucumbers and other fish species. A recent introduction to the islands has not prevented G. salicornia from becoming both an effective invader and a new habitat for benthic species.

Though I use the term frequently, deciding whether an organism is an ecosystem engineer is difficult. The term “ecosystem engineer” itself is problematic: almost every organism modifies its environment in some way, and in the face of indirect effects, quantifying this modification is nearly impossible. However, this category is useful because it can help us distinguish species which have strong physical impacts on ecosystems from those who affect the community mostly through competition, predation, or other biological pathways. Jones et al. (1997) define ecosystem engineers as “organisms that directly or indirectly control the availability of resources to other organisms by causing physical state changes in biotic or abiotic materials. Physical ecosystem engineering by organisms is the physical modification, maintenance, or creation of habitats.” Essentially, ecosystem engineers create, modify, or destroy physical habitat.

Famous examples of ecosystem engineers include beavers, which fell trees and build dams, creating habitat for other organisms and altering patterns of water flow, and prairie dogs, whose burrows create nest habitat for birds. Plant examples abound: terrestrial forests are ecosystem engineers, as are many invasive plants. The cordgrassSpartina anglica has converted soft-bottom nearshore communities in the northeastern US to poorly drained swamps. In Hawai’i, the nitrogen-fixing shrub Morella faya has taken over areas of native forest, and because it fixes nitrogen, has significantly increased nitrogen concentrations in the areas where it has taken over. Mangroves have invaded much of Hawai’i’s nearshore habitats and are expected to have significant and varied community impacts (Simberloff 2011). The Invasive alga Gracilaria salicornia alters nutrient concentration and sedimentation and flow rates. Okay, organisms can have physical effects on ecosystems. Why do we need to know whether or not they are engineers, or how much engineering they can do, exactly?

There are at least two reasons: 1) determining the extent of an organisms physical impact on a system is key in deciding whether or not the species will flourish and how it will affect the invaded community. This is particularly important in Hawai’i, which has endured a number of invasions and continues to be on the lookout for new, dangerous potential invasive species. 2) If we study these systems we may be able to build predictive models that tell us not only whether a species will be successful but where it is likely to colonize (Cuddington and Hastings 2004).

Information about invasive engineers can be difficult to sort, and sometimes difficult to find in the first place. But understanding their impacts can be a useful tool for management, and an ecological lesson.

Dinoflagellates and diatoms removed from the surface of a frond of Acanthophora spicifera,another structure-forming alga. A. spicifera is a physical host for microalgae, which grow on its surface and take advantage of localized high nutrient concentrations. In the Caribbean, it hosts Gambierdiscus toxicus, the dinoflagellate that causes Ciguatera Fish Poisoning (CFP). Interactions like these are important and can be vital to human health. (Note: G. toxicus does not grow well in waters with low salinity, so it's unlikely to show up in the fishpond).

Jones, C., Lawton, J., & Shachak, M. (1997). Positive and Negative Effects of Organisms as Physical Ecosystem Engineers Ecology, 78 (7) DOI: 10.2307/2265935

Jones, C., Lawton, J., & Shachak, M. (1994). Organisms as Ecosystem Engineers Oikos, 69 (3) DOI: 10.2307/3545850

Daniel Simberloff (2011). How common are invasion-induced ecosystem impacts? Biological Invasions : 10.1007/s10530-011-9956-3

Cuddington, K. (2004). Invasive engineers Ecological Modelling DOI:10.1016/S0304-3800(04)00152-8

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  • Mahalo Nui Loa

    I recently graduated from the Donahue Lab at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa and am currently a graduate student at the University of Washington. This research is funded by a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation, as well a scholarship from the Seattle chapter of the Achievement Rewards for College Scientists (ARCS) Foundation.
  • “Where do ecological ideas come from? …Most do not spring deductively from the minds of ecologists, like Athena from the head of Zeus. Instead, they emerge when ecologists absorb the essential spirit of individual places– their genius loci.”

    ~Mary V. Price & Ian Billick, "The Ecology of Place"
  • “Aloha is the intelligence with which we meet life.”

    ~Olana A'i, Kumu Hula

  • “I no longer say ‘Hawaiian ways of knowing’ anymore. Because people relegate that to the margins. ‘Ways of knowing,’ as if it’s a quaint, anthropologic way of describing something outside us. No, it’s ‘epistemology,’ the philosophy of knowledge. Land educates. ‘Ike ‘aina. The land of your birth educates you. This land here educates you.”

    ~Manu Meyer

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