Many ant species are ecosystem engineers. An ecosystem engineer is an organism which structures the environment to suit its needs and in doing so has profound effects on the occurrence, abundance, and spatial pattern of other species. Beavers, who turn streams into ponds, are the textbook example. Ants do exactly the same thing in soil. They are soil engineers. Through their nesting habits, ants are agents of bioturbation, mixing soil horizons and creating avenues for water and gas exchange through the tunnels and chambers that make up their nest architecture. These activities result in soil production and altering soil chemical, physical, and biotic profiles.
Their movement of materials from above and below ground concentrates nutrients and minerals in the nest and associated soil. The above ground nest structure is engineered as well. By creating soil or other mound structures, the ants may prevent plant colonization and change soil temperature and moisture profiles. The addition of pebbles to nest mounds done by Pogonomyrmex barbatus and P. rugosus, for instance, changes the temperature of the upper region of the nests. These species intentionally forage pebbles from the environment to do so. The parasitic, commensalist and mutualist organisms which may share these nests change the soil communities since these species would not be present at all without the ants.
Through all these activities ants engineer the soil to be suitable for the internal environment of their nests insuring the development of their young and their own survival. Because of this soil engineering, the occurrence, abundance, and spatial pattern of soil organisms and therefore the soil community are significantly different in areas with ant nests and those without. In turn, the differences in the soil community affect soil nutrient cycling and availability which affects these communities as well as the plant community which has a large portion of their bodies above ground. When an ant colony dies or moves, the nest area becomes available for colonization. As a result of the far reaching impacts of their engineering, ants have been used as indicators of ecosystem health and function, specifically tracking the progression through climax stages and in remediation of mining sites specifically due to soil production and engineering activities of ants.
Here I have focused mostly on the engineering of ground nesting ants on soil and provided photo of Pogonomyrmex comanche nests. Ant engineering may include many other ant species and other ecosystem impacts such as foraging activities including vegetation clearing on foraging areas and trails and foraging on seed and vegetative parts through which ants can impact plant populations and communities.
Because ants are central place animals, like beaver, their engineering is of local significance and contributes to the importance of spatial ecology for understanding ecosystem function and health.
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