Ecosystem engineer

Term Description

An ecosystem engineer is an organism that modifies, creates or destroys habitat and directly or indirectly modulates the availability of resources to other species, causing physical state changes in biotic or abiotic materials. The term was coined by Dr. Clive Jones, an ecologist from the Institute of Ecosystem Studies (IES)[1], a pioneer in ecosystem engineering research. He described the general process and developed the concepts in the 1994 paper with colleagues Drs. John H. Lawton and Moshe Shachak.

There are two types of ecosystem engineers:

  • Autogenic engineers (e.g. corals, trees, lianas) change the environment via their own physical structures (i.e. their living and dead tissues), they modify the environment by modifying themselves.
  • Allogenic engineers (e.g. beavers, caterpillars) change the environment by transforming living or non-living materials from one physical state to another, via mechanical or other means.


  • Introduced species are often ecosystem engineers, e.g. Kudzu, a leguminous plant (climbing perennial vine) introduced to the southeast U.S., changes the distribution and number of animal and bird species in the invaded areas.
  • The zebra mussel is also a freshwater ecosystem engineer, which provide refuge area for invertebrates through increasing microhabitats that protect from predators and by efficient water filtration which increase the water transparency and light penetration into deeper parts of lakes, which in turn may  increase the grow of algae and macrophytes. 
  • Beavers are altering the habitat by clearcutting and damming, they are capable to alter extensively surrounding habitat by transforming the lotic water system (stream) into lenitic system (pond) and they alter a riparian habitat, which has huge impact on the water quality of streams.
  • Caterpillars are creating shelters from leaves they also have been creating shelters for other organisms, which may occupy that shelters either simultaneously or subsequently.
  • Corals are creating shelters and protecting other species from powerful waves. 
  • Trees, their trunks, branches, lives and roots create habitats for many other living organisms.
  • Lianas connect trees that allow other animals to travel through the forest canopy.
  • Earthworm by burrowing they increase soil drainage and are drivers of the competition between grasses and legumes . 



Species interactions will be mediated by the ecosystem engineers modifications of the abiotic landscape. Ecosystem engineers may be used to restore ecological systems


  1. ^ Institute of Ecosystem Studies

Further reading

  • Jones CG, Lawton JH and Shachak M 1994. Organisms as ecosystem engineers. Oikos 69: 373-386
  • Badano, Ernesto I.; Cavieres, Lohengrin A..2006. Ecosystem engineering across ecosystems: do engineer species sharing common features have generalized or idiosyncratic effects on species diversity? Journal of Biogeography.33,2:304-313
  • Eisenhauer, N. Scheu, S. 2008. Earthworms as drivers of the competition between grasses and legumes. Soil Biology & Biochemistry.40,10:2650-2659
  • Byers JE, Cuddington K, Jones CG et al. 2006. Using ecosystem engineers to restore ecological systems. Trends in ecology and evolution 9
  • Ecosystem Engineering Publications and Ecosystem Engineering Links by Clive G. Jones


Bledzki, L. (2010). Ecosystem engineer. Retrieved from


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