Animal Master Builders: Nature’s Engineering Marvels

Animal master builders: nature’s engineering marvels

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Animals may not have bricks and mortar, but that doesn’t stop them from building some pretty impressive homes. From the elegance of the spider’s web to the bustling interior of a bee hive, nature has some very adept engineers.

Types of Animal Homes

Types of animal homes
Rabbits Construct Complex Networks of Underground Tunnels and Chambers

Animals have varying needs, and that means that they need different types of homes to meet these needs. The diversity in the animal kingdom when it comes to a place to live is enormous. Let’s take a look at the different homes we see in nature.

  • Hives –  hives are mostly associated with bees, but other flying insects like wasps also build hives. They’re made from wax and are complex structures that can contain tens of thousands of individuals.
  • Burrows – a burrow is an underground home that is dug out by the animal. Creatures such as rabbits live in burrows, which can contain several different rooms or chambers connected by tunnels.
  • Nests – nests are the homes built by birds, and they’re often made from things like grass, twigs, leaves, and other natural materials. They provide birds with a place to lay their eggs, but not all birds build them; some nest in holes in trees, for example. Other animals that build nests include ants which often look like small mounds of dirt on the ground.
  • Mounds – termites build mounds that can be enormous in size, especially when you consider how small these creatures are. However, they work together using soil along with their own saliva to create mounds that are filled with tunnels and chambers.
  • Webs – Webs are weaved by spiders that naturally produce silk. These structures might not look very stable but spider’s silk is one of the strongest materials on the planet; even stronger than steel.
  • Caves – while not necessarily constructed by the animal, a cave is a popular home for things like bats, bears, and even lions. They provide excellent shelter, and the animal can adapt the cave to its own needs. Both terrestrial animals and aquatic creatures live in caves.
  • Shells – we’re all familiar with the image of a snail carrying its home on its back, and there are many other creatures that do the same. Shells are compact and offer excellent protection for various types of mollusk. There are even some types of crab, like the hermit crab, that will use discarded shells to fashion their very own home.
  • Den – polar bears dig a den in the snow as a way of offering protection from the elements to their young. Dens are often hidden and are mainly created by mammals.

Why do Animals Build Structures?

Why do animals build structures?
Bowerbirds Construct Elaborate and Decorative Nests, known as a Bower, to Attract a Mate

Just like humans, there are many reasons that an animal might need a safe home. From keeping out of the elements to attracting a mate, let’s take a closer look at why animals build structures.

For Shelter

One of the main reasons that an animal might build a structure is for shelter. Any creature would find it challenging being exposed to rain, wind, snow, and extreme temperatures so having somewhere to hide away can ensure the animal stays comfortable.

For example, animals that create burrows under the ground are able to get out of the heat, so this is often something that is seen in desert environments. Not only that, but these creatures create impressive constructions of tunnels and chambers which have excellent airflow to keep things cool.

But animals don’t just need shelter to keep out of extreme weather, they also use them as a way of hiding from predators. There are lots of species of ground-nesting birds that will build their homes from materials that help them to blend into the surroundings. Not only does this give them a place to hide from predators, but it also ensures they’re as inconspicuous as possible.

To Trap Prey

Ever heard the saying caught in the spider’s web? It refers to the spider’s prey getting tangled in the web as this home is used to help the creature catch its next meal!

They may add decorative features as a way of better attracting their prey and many species are known to increase the size of their webs when food sources are sparse.

The antlion is another animal that builds a trap for prey. In this case, it will dig holes in the sand with steep edges. The structure is purposefully weak so that, when prey walks over the top, it falls right into the antlion’s lair and cannot escape!

Attract a Mate & for Communication

It makes sense that, when looking for a mate, animals are attracted to a nice home. And the bowerbird uses this to its advantage; the males create elaborate displays outside their homes as a way of attracting a mate. They’ll use things like leaves, flowers and berries outside of a makeshift hut and the most attractive will get the girl!

The fiddler crab is another example of this, and the males will create pillars out of mud and sand as a way of getting attention from females.

Architectural Wonders of the Animal World

Out there in nature, there are lots of animals that have amazing building skills. In every corner of the world, these creatures are defying the odds to create structures that might even put humans to shame!

1. Compass Termite

Compass termites builds huge mounds that look like gravestones.

The compass termite is found in the Northern Territory of Australia, particularly around Darwin, where it builds huge mounds that look like gravestones! There are several reasons that these structures are truly mind blowing, but what amazes me is that the termites are able to regulate the temperature inside to within one degree!

They do this by building the mound in such a way that the airflow can be easily controlled and humans are even observing this for use in our own architecture.

Each mound could be as tall as 13 feet (3.9 meters) and may contain up to a million individuals. The termites build the mounds by mixing their saliva with the soil and dung and they can be seen scattered all across the northern grasslands.

2. Prairie Dog

Prairie dogs build burrow systems under the ground called prairie dog towns.

Despite their name, prairie dogs are not actually a canine species; they’re a type of squirrel! These cute critters are found in North America as far down as northern Mexico.

While they are relatively small creatures, prairie dogs have the ability to build some pretty amazing homes called prairie dog towns. These burrow systems under the ground not only provide shelter for this species but several others including rattlesnakes and jackrabbits.

Like the termites I discussed earlier, Prairie dogs build their homes with excellent ventilation systems to keep cool. They also have separate areas for sleeping, toileting, and raising their young. They live in families called coteries, and according to scientists, prairie dogs have the most complex vocal communication in the animal kingdom!

3. Bowerbird

Male bowerbirds build an impressive structure called a bower.

The bowerbird is one of 27 species that is native to Northern Australia and New Guinea. However, there have been reports of these birds in other parts of Australia.

One of the things that the bowerbird is renowned for is its elaborate courtship display which involves the males building an impressive structure called a bower; no prizes for guessing where the bird got its name! At the center is a simple hut, but it’s what’s outside that’ll catch the attention of the female.

Male bowerbirds adorn their ‘front yards’ with pieces they find in nature such as flowers, stones, berries, leaves, and much more. But what’s really impressive is that they don’t seem to be placed at random. Scientists believe that the male bowerbird angles his display in such a way that it forces perspective, making things seem bigger and more impressive to the female.

4. Burrowing Crayfish

The burrows of the burrowing crayfish are referred to as chimneys and, just like the human structures of the same name, they provide ventilation.

Burrowing crayfish are a species of crustacean closely related to the yabby. They’re found in Australia, with significant populations in Tasmania. Sadly, some species of burrowing crayfish are now under threat, including the Warragul burrowing crayfish.

The burrows of the burrowing crayfish are referred to as chimneys and, just like the human structures of the same name, they provide ventilation. They achieve this by creating tunnels under the ground at varying angles, which lead to a sleeping chamber, filled with water. 

Burrowing crayfish tend to build their homes at night since they are a nocturnal species and the burrows can spotted from above ground by looking like little chimneys of soil.

5. Leaf Curling Spider

Orb-weaving spiders take a leaf and curl it into a structure they can call home.

When we think of spiders, we often imagine them sitting in the center of a web. While the leaf curling spider does build a web, you won’t see it hanging out there. Instead, these orb-weaving spiders take a leaf and curl it into a structure they can call home; it’s not hard to see where they get their name.

They will coil the leaf on the nest and line it with a silk tube, and these cute animal structures can be seen all over the eastern parts of Australia. Where leaves aren’t available, these spiders have been seen to get pretty innovative, even using snail shells as shelter!

The main benefit of this structure is that it provides a place for the spider to hide from predators. However, it also keeps our eight-legged friend out of view of its prey. It’ll have its legs sticking out of the end of the leaf which allows it to feel for vibrations on the web when prey lands.

6. Red Wood Ant

Red wood ants build a huge mound as their nest and these are often found in pine forests.

When you think of a nest, you might imagine something made by birds in a tree. But ants build an entirely different kind of nest. In the case of the red wood ant, this is a huge mound often found in pine forests.

In comparison to the size of these ants, the nests are enormous, with some getting as tall as 6.6 feet (2 meters) in height.

Even more fascinating is the fact that a single colony may build several nests and move between them. The reason for this could be one of many, including the need to move to find food, threats from humans or predators, or changes within the nest that make it uninhabitable.

7. Sand Bubbler Crab

Sand bubbler crabs are burrowers, and you’ll find them hiding out under the sand along the shoreline.

Sand bubblers are small crabs that grow to about 0.4 inches (1 cm) and are found in Indo Pacific regions. They’re filter feeders, and when they eat, they’ll leave behind little bubbles of sand which is where they earned their name.

But it’s not only this that makes them so unique and special in the animal world. Sand bubbler crabs are burrowers, and you’ll find them hiding out under the sand along the shoreline. When the tide goes out, the crabs will emerge from their burrows to feed.

While you’d think that there was plenty of space for thousands of sand bubblers to occupy the beach, there’s something of a competition for the best spot. Scientists have observed fights between these creatures in order to occupy a burrow.

8. Muskrat

Muskrats construct a dome-shaped lodge, usually made from plants, with an entrance below the water line.

Muskrats are native to North America but have been introduced to parts of Europe and Asia. These semi-aquatic rodents are similar in appearance to beavers and just like this species, have some amazing building habits.

The muskrat is found in several different bodies of water, including rivers, swamps, ponds, lakes, and marshes. It will construct a dome-shaped lodge, usually made from plants, with an entrance below the water line. Getting in and out isn’t an issue since these animals can hold their breath for up to 15 minutes.

In some cases, muskrats will build more than one lodge, each with a different purpose. For example, one for breeding and one for feeding. Despite their impressive architectural abilities, muskrats do have conflict with humans since their burrowing can interfere with agricultural land.

9. Trapdoor Spider

Trapdoor spiders will construct a door made from silk, mud and vegetation to conceal itself within the burrow.

Found mainly in tropical and subtropical regions, the trapdoor spider is a venomous yet non-aggressive species of arachnid. They rarely come into contact with humans since they spend most of their time hiding out in their burrows.

What’s special about this animal home is that the spider will construct a door made from silk, mud and vegetation to conceal itself within the burrow. The idea is that it is invisible to prey but can still detect vibrations as a meal passes by.

The spider fits perfectly into its hole and, when prey comes near, will spring out of the opening to catch it. However, there are some species of trapdoor spider that don’t fashion a door for their burrows.

10. Montezuma Oropendola

Montezuma oropendola birds build sac-like nests.

The Montezuma oropendola is a bird species found in Central America, particularly around the lowlands of the Caribbean. They live in the canopies where the female birds will build unique nests from vines and other fibers which hang as high as 98 feet (30 meters) in the trees.

What’s even more impressive is that these sac-like structures form part of a harem, with each tree belonging to an individual male; all his females building nests for their home. But in order to be initiated into the tree, the female must first be wooed. It’s not the gurgling song of the male Montezuma oropendola that does it for her but his bowed dance.

11. Naked Mole-Rat

Naked mole-rat underground burrows are made up of several tunnels.

Native to the Horn of Africa, the naked mole rat is one of nature’s more obscure-looking creatures. Hairless and almost blind, these animals spend most of their time under the ground. They are incredibly resilient and robust creatures that can resist cancer, do not need much oxygen, and can barely feel pain on their skin!

Their underground burrows are made up of several tunnels and, since these animals cannot regulate their own temperature, there are spaces within the home where several individuals will huddle together to keep warm; how cute!

Naked mole rats won’t even come out of their burrows to feed. Instead, they’ll feast on the roots of plants that protrude down into their underground kingdom!

12. Spongillafly

During the larval stage, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever see a spongillafly since they spend all of their time underwater, feeding on, you guessed it; sponges!

During the cocoon phase, the sponge fly larvae create a structure that’s not seen anywhere else in nature. The cocoon looks more like a dome-shaped net with a delicately weaved inner cocoon where the larva undergoes its metamorphosis.

Spongillaflies are found all over the world from tropical to boreal regions. There are more than 60 different species!

13. Paper Wasp

Paper wasp's nests are made when the wasps chew up wood and mix it with the saliva, creating a pulp-like substance.

If you have a wasp infestation around your home then there’s a good chance that paper wasps will be to blame. They often like to build their nests in places like the corner of a porch, and the queens will actively search for a suitable spot.

The paper wasp is sometimes called the umbrella wasp, in reference to the shape of its nest. These nests are made when the wasps chew up wood and mix it with the saliva, creating a pulp-like substance.

The structures contain several combs into which the queen lays her eggs. Once the eggs hatch, the new wasps will dissipate, and only the new queens will survive the winter.

14. Sociable Weaver

Sociable weaver birds hold the record of building the largest nest of any avian species.

If you live in the Kalahari region of South Africa then you may have seen huge nests that seemingly drag down a tree; these were built by the sociable weaver bird. These birds hold the record of building the largest nest of any avian species.

The benefit of building such large nests is that the structures can house several breeding pairs. In fact, the biggest ones can hold up to 100 pairs as well as being a place of safety for other bird species; as they say, sharing is caring!

What really amazes me about the sociable weaver nest is how well constructed it is for temperature regulation. Despite the hot sun outside, the birds construct the nest to stay cool. The outer chambers provide a place to roost during the day out of the heat, while those at the center are better insulated for resting at night.

15. Beaver

Beavers make use of a variety of materials, including mud, stone, and wood to construct their dams.

Beavers are among some of the most adept builders in the animal kingdom. They make use of a variety of materials, including mud, stone, and wood to construct their dams, the biggest of which, in Canada, at 2788 feet (850 meters), can be seen from outer space!

These aquatic mammals are mainly found in North America, but there are now populations in eastern Europe and western Russia.

The dam isn’t actually the beaver’s home. They build their dams as a way of protecting themselves from predators. Once the dam is complete, a pool will form, and it’s here that the beavers will build a home called a lodge.

The lodge could be described as a makeshift island with interior tunnels, in the middle of the beaver-made pond. The water is too deep for predators to get across, and the tunnels provide a safe route back home after the beaver has been out foraging for food.

16. Weaver Ant

Weaver ants build their nests using leaves.

As you can probably guess from their name, the weaver ant makes its nest by weaving. These ants, sometimes called green ants, are native to Australia and parts of Southeast Asia.

In as little as 24 hours, a colony of weaver ants can build an entire nest. They do this by pulling leaves together; of course, it takes several ants to do this as the leaves are much bigger than they are, so they work in chains.

Once the leaves are in position, the weaver ant larvae produce silk that the adults use to weave the leaves together.

17. Caddisfly

Caddisfly larvae make portable homes for themselves by using things like sand, twigs, stone, and leaves and bind them together using the silk that they produce.

Caddisfly larvae spend their time at the bottom of ponds and other bodies of freshwater looking for food, so humans don’t really get to see them. However, while they’re down there, these young flies are also developing their architectural skills by making portable homes for themselves.

They make these cases from things like sand, twigs, stone and leaves and bind them together using silk that they produce. The cases offer them protection from predators, and the caddisfly larvae will use them until it’s time to spin a cocoon for the next stage of life.

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