Ecology Ecosystem Engineers
Andrew H. Altieri
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0134


Ecosystem engineers are organisms that modify, maintain and/or create habitat. The term was originally proposed twenty years ago by Clive Jones, John Lawton, and Moshe Shachak in an effort to bridge the largely separate pursuits of population and ecosystem ecology. They proposed a conceptual framework for understanding how organisms modulate resources and thus have the potential to indirectly interact with other organisms. In the relatively short history of the term’s use, ecosystem engineers have inspired tremendous interests from observational, experimental, and theoretical ecologists as well as evolutionary biologists and have influenced work in all ecosystems including marine, freshwater, and terrestrial, as well as in a diversity of living systems from the smallest microbes to the most massive trees. “Ecosystem engineer” is one of several related terms that came to ride a building wave of interest in how organisms can create and modify habitats. “Ecosystem engineer” has been adopted as one of the most popular terms and has helped galvanize research on the topic by giving a common name to a wide variety of mechanisms by which organisms interact with the physical environment (and thereby indirectly affect other organisms), as these interactions did not fit into the common categories of ecological interactions that had previously driven much of contemporary ecological study. Included in the earliest definition is a distinction between “autogenic engineering” in which the structure of the engineering species itself alters the environment, such as tree leaves that fall to the ground and change soil conditions, and “allogenic engineering” in which organisms transform habitats or resources but are not themselves a part of the habitat, such as beavers that dam creeks and create ponds. The term “ecosystem engineer” has experienced a near-exponential growth in the number of publications and citations since its introduction. This body of work has demonstrated the power for ecosystem engineering to explain conspicuous patterns in species abundance, diversity, and ecosystem processes which is a core pursuits of ecology.

General Overviews

The term “ecosystem engineer,” and its underlying meaning, grew from a workshop hosted at the (Cary) Institute of Ecosystems Studies. This effort produced two early works, Jones, et al. 1994 and Lawton 1994, and the follow-up paper Jones, et al. 1997. These are the defining works on the term “ecosystem engineer,” including definitions, examples, limits, and some (unintentionally identified) potential pitfalls of its usage. Alper 1998 highlights the broad appeal of the ecosystem engineering concept and indicated a welcoming path for the new term. Following the earlier papers in which the original authors appeared to be elbowing for acceptance of the term “ecosystem engineer,” Hastings, et al. 2007 is an updated review that makes it evident that the term had found wide acceptance and application and is apparently here to stay. However, Jones, et al. 2010 seems compelled to review some of the basics before providing a helpful organization of how to think of ecosystem engineers and their impact. With two exceptions, the publications listed in this overview section cover the introduction and development of the term “ecosystem engineer” as put forward by Jones and colleagues. However, it should be noted that the concept that organisms create and modify habitats was recognized before the term “ecosystem engineer” was coined, as emphasized in Bruno and Bertness 2001, and those related works are highlighted in other sections of this bibliography such as Books and Special Issues, Synonyms and Related Concepts, and Controversies. Although it tackles positive interactions in general, the synthesis in Bruno, et al. 2003 is worth including here because habitat modification is a major mechanism of facilitation, and the authors succinctly and clearly make a case for how consideration of those interactions will change basic concepts in ecology.

  • Alper, J. 1998. Ecosystem “engineers” shape habitats for other species. Science 280:1195–1196.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.280.5367.1195E-mail Citation »

    A commentary that puts ecosystem engineering into simple terms with illustrative examples, although some have been critical that the article gave the appearance that habitat modification by organisms, rather than the term “ecosystem engineer” itself, was new to science.

  • Bruno, J. F., and M. D. Bertness. 2001. Habitat modification and facilitation in benthic marine communities. In Marine community ecology. Edited by M. D. Bertness, S. D. Gaines, and M. E. Hay, 201–220. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.

    E-mail Citation »

    These examples are derived primarily from the marine realm, as the title implies. The authors provide a general and balanced review of how appreciation for the role that organisms play in modifying and creating habitats arose from a body of research and multitude of investigators that originated before, and at times in parallel to, the introduction of the term “ecosystem engineers.”

  • Bruno, J., J. Stachowicz, and M. Bertness. 2003. Inclusion of facilitation into ecological theory. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 18:119–125.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0169-5347(02)00045-9E-mail Citation »

    The authors make a compelling case for how facilitation, including habitat modification by ecosystem engineers, will revise many fundamental concepts in basic and applied ecology.

  • Hastings, A., J. E. Byers, J. A. Crooks et al. 2007. Ecosystem engineering in space and time. Ecology Letters 10:153–164.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2006.00997.xE-mail Citation »

    A sophisticated but readable review that presents an updated perspective on the multifaceted way in which ecosystem engineering is evident across levels of ecological organization and evolutionary perspectives, and through a variety of approaches including observational, experimental, and modeling studies that emphasize the relevance of spatial and temporal scale.

  • Jones, C. G., J. L. Gutierrez, J. E. Byers, J. A. Crooks, J. G. Lambrinos, and T. S. Talley. 2010. A framework for understanding physical ecosystem engineering by organisms. Oikos 119:1862–1869.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-0706.2010.18782.xE-mail Citation »

    Presents a useful and well-organized synthesis of ecosystem engineering interactions and the consequences for physical factors, other organisms, and the engineer itself. However, the need to (re)define (yet again) the term “ecosystem engineer” seems to be motivated by more than just the broadening use of the term; it also implies that the authors are still on the defensive after more than fifteen years of using the term.

  • Jones, C. G., J. H. Lawton, and M. Shachak. 1994. Organisms as ecosystem engineers. Oikos 69:373–386.

    DOI: 10.2307/3545850E-mail Citation »

    This was the first paper to introduce the term “ecosystem engineer” and provides diagrams and examples in an attempt to specify what effects of organisms qualify or do not qualify as ecosystem engineering.

  • Jones, C. G., J. H. Lawton, and M. Shachak. 1997. Positive and negative effects of organisms as physical ecosystem engineers. Ecology 78:1946–1957.

    DOI: 10.1890/0012-9658(1997)078[1946:PANEOO]2.0.CO;2E-mail Citation »

    This follow up to Jones, et al. 1994 hints at some early criticisms the authors had received by providing further examples and general templates of species interactions that qualify as ecosystem engineers, refining their initial definition (e.g., to also include provision of living space) with the help of specific examples. Makes some general statements about the expected significance of ecosystem engineers through the net positive and negative interactions at various spatial and temporal scales.

  • Lawton, J. H. 1994. What do species do in ecosystems? Oikos 71:367–374.

    DOI: 10.2307/3545824E-mail Citation »

    Lawton’s follow up to Jones, et al. 1994 provides some specifics of how ecosystem engineers can contribute to emergent relationships among species identity, diversity, and ecosystem function.

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