Humans are far from the only creatures with the ability to shape the environment in their favour. From insects and arachnids to marine invertebrates and mammals, the animal kingdom is rife with members who all construct their own habitats. Here are the most prolific builders in Animalia.
The phrase is "busy as a bee" for a reason. Bees are nature's standard bearer of builders, famous for their wax honeycombs. However, most natural bee nests are situated in caves, rock crevices, and tree hollows with cavities just 45 litres in volume on average and never more than 100 litres. That's not that big, compared to what they can do with a bit of human help.
Image: AP Images
If given a suitable artificial habitat—say, the eaves of this cabin—their hives can grow upwards of four metres long, over a metre wide, and just under half a metre deep. When this nest was discovered and removed in April, 2013, the extermination team removed some six kilograms of honeybees alone—roughly 60,000 individuals.
Despite these impressive engineering feats, it's actually the bee's close relatives from the Vespidae family—hornets and wasps—that are the real masons of the insect world. Species including yellowjackets, baldfaced hornets, and paper wasps all build their homes out of a pulp produced by mixing chewed wood fibre with the insect's saliva—a sort of natural papier-mâché. Unlike the European honeybee's hexagonal cell structure, hornet and wasp nests consist of a series of tiered, rounded combs which are sometimes covered by a solid outer envelope. And also unlike bees, these nests can never be "too large" for a colony.
Last year, police in the town of San Sebastián de La Gomera, in the Canary islands, responded to calls of large numbers of wasps swarming around an abandoned house. Except that house wasn't abandoned. It was very much occupied—by the million-plus wasps that had taken over and built this monumental six-metre-wide nest.
And in 2010, exterminators were shocked to discover a compact car-sized nest in the attic above a Southampton pub. Measuring 1.8 metres by 1.5 metres, this monstrous paper mass is the largest ever found in Britain. But it still doesn't compare to the biggest ever: a 3.6 metre by 1.8 metre whopper discovered in New Zealand in 1963.
Another pair of close relatives to bees and wasps are equally prolific builders. Termites in particular are capable of constructing magnificent and overwhelmingly large structures, many magnitudes larger than any individual hive member. Similar to wasps, termites typically construct their mounds with a mix of soil, saliva, and shit. The large tower you see in the image above isn't actually a living space, it's a chimney. Its walls are porous, allowing for improved oxygen circulation and thermal regulation of the below-ground colony. These structures can be found throughout Africa, Australia, and South America, the largest of which can reach 27 metres in diameter.
Ants, on the other hand, go even larger, with multiple colonies often combining forces to become "supercolonies." Until 2000, the largest such supercolony ever discovered was found on the Ishikari coast of Hokkaido, Japan, and housed an estimated 306 million workers and one million queens living among some 45,000 nests—all of which were interconnected by underground passages covering a total area of more than 670 acres.
In 2000, researchers in southern Europe discovered an Argentine ant supercolony comprised of 33 distinct ant populations living along a 3,731 mile stretch of Mediterranean coast,with more than a billion workers in millions of individual nests. And in 2004, entomologists in Melbourne, Australia discovered a 62 mile-wide supercolony.
"In Argentina, their native homeland, ant colonies span tens of metres, are genetically diverse and highly aggressive towards one another. So population numbers never explode and they are no threat to other plants and animals," says Elissa Suhr of Monash University in Melbourne. "When they arrived in Australia, in 1939, a change in their structure occurred, changing their behaviour so that they are not aggressive towards one another. This has resulted in the colonies becoming one super colony."
However, for some migratory species, expansive underground palaces are completely unnecessary. Driver and Army ants are exceptionally voracious species, able to forage in areas of more than 1,500 square metres in a single day and strip an area bare in a matter of weeks. They construct their nests from the bodies of their own worker drones. Known as a bivouac, this metre-wide mobile fortress is comprised of anywhere from 150,000 to 700,000 workers and designed to protect the queen and larvae as the colony moves up to 18 metres an hour among its various hunting grounds. [PBS - Wiki 1, 2 - BBC News]
Image: Donna Garde, Texas Parks & Wildlife
Spiders aren't the lone ambush hunters that they're made out to be. Some species of spider live together, such as the 50,000-member Anelosimus eximius colony discovered in Tawakoni State Park, Texas in 2010. This mega-web housed millions of spiders covered the area of two football pitches. [Wiki - Texas ENTO]
It's not easy being a caterpillar. Beyond simultaneously finding enough to eat and not being eaten themselves, caterpillars must mature as quickly as possible in order to meet their physiological objective of passing genes on to the next generation. One species, the Small Eggar moth (Eriogaster lanestris), accomplishes all three goals by weaving silken communal structures that passively regulate their temperatures—all in order to maximise their rate of development while protecting them from predators and providing a convenient base for feeding excursions.
The giant brown mound in the image you see above is a single beaver dam. Built of mud, stone, and trees, beavers' large communal lodges are surrounded by massive moats to frustrate potential predators. At an astounding 850 metres in length, this example, discovered on the southern edge of Wood Buffalo National Park in Northern Alberta, Canada, is nearly twice the size of conventional multi-family dams (which top out around 450 metres in length) and more than twice as long as the Hoover dam. It's so big, it can be seen from space. [Gizmodo]
Image: gary yim
Running more than 1,600 miles, spanning up to 40 miles, covering 133,000 square miles, and comprised of 900 islands and nearly 3,000 individual reefs, the Great Barrier Reef is the single largest structure ever constructed by organisms other than us. Like a natural Great Wall of China—but larger, the Great Barrier Reef can be seen from space and is considered the single biggest structure made by living organisms on the planet.
These reefs have been cyclicly growing and dying off for close to 60 million years, though the coral that visitors can swim among today have only been growing for the past 20,000 years or so. The reef isn't just home to thousands of species of marine life—it is itself a collection of billions of individual corals. [Odd Culture]