I’m fascinated by creatures that create new ways of life for others. Ecologists talk about ‘keystone species,’ ones which support entire ecosystems, like the central stone in a renaissance archway. Pull it away, and the whole arch falls. But I like to go beyond the edge-of-your-seat ‘Jenga’ approach, and think about ‘ecosystem engineers': category-busters that create new opportunities for everyone. The beaver is one of those. Beavers build lodges (domed shelters made of woven branches and grass, plastered together like adobe) and they also build log dams to raise the water level around the lodge, hiding the entries to their home safely underwater. When beavers are around, a wetland is nine times more likely to have pooling water, and in times of drought, these waterways have 60% more water in them. Where there are beavers, there is a greater abundance and diversity of songbirds, frogs, salamanders, dragonflies, and fish. Put simply, beavers make ponds, and ponds support life. There are other ecosystem engineers out there; fig trees, coral reefs, elephants, and fungus, for example. In each of these species, a radical innovation brought them success and changed the world forever, not just for themselves, but for everyone else as well. People do it too. But are we creating more life with our innovation? More opportunities? More value? Read today’s entry of The Biomimicry Manual, and find out!
With climate change predicting more drought, it looks like we’re going to need a lot more beavers. The more dams we have, the more and better freshwater we have, and the richer the local wildlife. Beavers are a cheap and effective way to restore habitat. Near San Francisco, for instance, Alhambra Creek’s $10 million flood-improvement project was ‘destroyed’ by a pair of beavers who weren’t impressed! It wasn’t long before steel-head trout, mink, and otter made their way back home. Beavers are busy as… well, beavers! They’re repairing river habitats, replenishing local water tables, reducing downstream flooding, and stopping silt runoff.
And beavers aren’t the only ones who create conditions for more life. Back in the Pleistocene, a baffling array of elephant-like creatures helped open up a savanna-grassland patchwork across Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Large and small, woolly and bald, even one with a spork at the end of his nose (yes, that brilliant cafeteria combo of fork and spoon), these creatures uprooted trees, opened forest edges, excavated dry riverbeds with their tusks, and created wallows essential to other species. Many large grazers like bison and zebra benefitted, as did our own ancestors.
Meanwhile, in the tropical rainforests of the world, towering fig trees offer a juicy gathering spot for countless tree-dwelling insects, spiders, birds, monkeys, and other mammals. Along the lazy shores, coral reefs (an unlikely partnership of tiny coral animals and photosynthesizing algae) have invented an entirely novel platform for all kinds of innovative life. Today, they teem with a jaw-dropping richness of flashing, darting jewels. Last year, I visited a strange, salty, volcanic lake in the mountains of Mexico. The shore was ringed with round, bleaching humps that looked for all the world like giant decaying brains. These ‘stromatolites’ are left behind by primordial photosynthesizing bacteria, whose ancestors brewed up the air we breathe and our nice ozone sunblock some 3.8 billion years ago. Thanks, stromatolites!
The humble lichen might seem kind of Plain Jane, but this fantastical chimera of fungus and algae has worked together tirelessly over millennia to wrest minerals from bare rock while cooking up a rich layer of soil. Plants later came along and found this was a nice place to sink their roots. And, as any gardener who’s looked under a microscope at their fingernails knows, that soil positively seethes with ecosystem engineers. Darwin himself devoted a whole book to the magical earthworm (no, that one isn’t on my nightstand). Around them, a dense network of mycorrhizal fungus pushes and pulls at nutrients, water, and communication signals, forming a veritable superhighway and internet for the trees that depend on them. Who really knows what the mushrooms are up to? I suspect their pulsing planetary neo-cortex is involved in an inscrutable evolutionary plot of their own design. I wonder where Congress fits in?
For each of these species, a radical innovation brought them success and changed the world forever. We humans, of course, are one of the best ecosystem engineers this planet has ever seen. We’ve altered the atmosphere, the weather, and ocean pH. We’ve inventing polymers that never existed and may never go away, hauled vast amounts of metal and fossilized carbon to the planet surface, incinerated forests, melted polar ice, paved paradise, and put up a parking lot. We modify every environment to suit our immediate selves. This naked tropical ape can live anywhere. That’s a radical innovation, and it’s changed the world forever.
But are we creating a new platform, new opportunities never before seen on this planet? It’s possible. No doubt a rich and vibrant plastic-eating ecosystem will emerge in the distant future. And of course, the rats and cockroaches, pigeons, and mosquitoes love us just the way we are. But at some point in the history of any successful species, someone discovers a competitive advantage by partnering with other species, sharing risk and opportunity, surfing for free. As we push up against the boundaries of our world, I think we’ll find that it is safer, more efficient, and more productive to partner up into closed loop systems, to upcycle our waste into opportunities that weren’t there before. Not just for each other, but for all life on Earth. It’s time for this ecosystem engineer to create conditions conducive to life.
An evolutionary biologist, writer, sustainability expert, and passionate biomimicry professional in the Biomimicry 3.8 BPro certification program, Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker blogs at BioInspired Ink and serves as Content Developer for the California Association of Museums‘ Green Museums Initiative. She is working on a book about organizational transformation inspired by nature.