Ecosystem engineering, the physical modification of the environment by organisms, may well be the most common kind of non-trophic interaction – nearly as ubiquitous as eating and being eaten, and often as influential. Because species are affected by the physical environment, and because all ecosystem engineers belong to food webs while also modifying the environment, their dual role is potentially one of the most important bridges between the trophic and non-trophic. For example, many ant species are predators and important earth movers (see picture). Nevertheless, research in both areas has remained largely independent.
An upcoming paper (“Integrating ecosystem engineering and food webs” by D. Sanders, C. Jones, E. Thébault, T. Bouma, T. van der Heide, J. van Belzen, and S. Barot) explores how to integrate ecosystem engineering and food webs. The paper provides rationales justifying integration, and then a framework for understanding how engineering can affect food webs and vice-versa, and how feedbacks alter dynamics. A simple food chain model is then used to illustrate the dynamics in the presence and absence of extrinsic environmental perturbations. The paper argues that current understanding of how engineering shapes food webs and vice versa is perhaps more hampered by lack of knowledge about food web responses to abiotic change than knowledge about how ecosystem engineers can cause such change; and that this is compounded by the fact that engineering and food web studies are rarely studied together in the same system. The authors argue that with appropriate studies and integrative models, conjunction is achievable, helping pave the way to a more general understanding of interaction webs in nature.
Ecosystem engineering and predation by Formica ants (photo credit Dirk Sanders)