Many members of the animal kingdom live in simple burrows or nests, but some species go to great lengths to create incredible homes, colonies, and other structures. Their designs are ingenious and offer insight into how all living creatures adapt to their surroundings to create unique homes.
Here are 10 great examples:
The rufous hornero, or red ovenbird, which can be found throughout South America, is the national bird for both Argentina and Uruguay.. This species builds sturdy clay nests that are believed to help regulate temperature for incubating eggs while the parent ovenbirds scavenge for food. Squatters are allowed as these homes are often used by other birds as nests once the ovenbirds depart or build new clay structures. Because the versatile red ovenbird can live successfully in modified environments like city suburbs, nests are sometimes built on telephone poles or other manmade structures, such as the one pictured below.
Photo: LeonardoMB, 2013
Though only the size of a common sparrow, 5 or 6 inches long, the sociable weaver (Philetarius socius) punches well above its weight when it comes to nest-building. Not surprising considering its name, sociable weavers work together to build one huge nest for their entire colony. Over time, these nests can be close to 10-feet tall and 20-feet wide, with more than 100 individual nesting spots. All told, these massive structures can provide room for up to 400 weavers. Some of these nests grow so heavy that they overturn the tree they’re attached to. Alternatively, others have been occupied for more than 100 years.
Photo: Geobeats, 2013
Instead of being notable for their elaborate home-building, Vogelkop bowerbirds (Amblyornis inornata) of Western New Guinea are famed for their decorating abilities. It’s all done in the name of love as male bowerbirds display their skills to attract a mate. Male Vogelkop bowerbirds construct meter-high, hut-like structures, called bowers, out of twigs and sticks. They then clear the area in front of the builds from any debris, and decorate their “lawns” with colorful and rare ornaments to impress their female counterparts. The bowerbird that built the nest below is displaying a color-coded variety of flowers, while others have been known to collect shiny bits of plastic or metal for their displays.
Photo: Tim Laman
Found throughout South and Southeast Asia, the Baya weaver (Ploceus philippinus) is another sparrow-like weaver well-known for elaborately woven nests. Made from long strips of leaves, grasses and palm fronds, these nests hang down from branches (often over water) with a long vertical tube widening to accommodate a teardrop-shaped chamber.
Photo credit: Harprit Singh 2013
Australian Green Ants
Australian green ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) build their nests by weaving living leaves together with a type of silk produced by the ant larvae. A single colony has only one queen but often has multiple nests spread out among one tree or even between adjacent trees, each with different functions and roles.
Photo: Queensland Museum
Caddisflies are an entire order (Trichoptera) of approximately 12,000 insect species, small and moth-like in appearance with two membranous wings. Though not animal architects in the same way as others on this list, their remarkable decorative abilities merit inclusion. Caddisfly larvae are aquatic and are found in a variety of streams, ponds, and springs. They are best known for their decorative protective cases. Caddisfly larvae will find a variety of nearby materials and bond them together with silk to form a protective shell, resulting in unique and beautiful designs.
Photo: Jan Hamrsky, 2011
Photo: Cheryl Rose, 2010
The Cathedral termites of Australia (Nasutitermes triodiae) are renowned for their incredible architectural abilities. Each termite is only a few millimeters long, but in groups of a million or more they can move over 500 pounds of soil and several tons of water over the course of the year to build tall mounds that can reach more than 5 meters in height. These structures are among the tallest in the world in relation to the size of Cathedral termites. Compared to human buildings, the biggest termite mounds are proportionally four times taller than the tallest man-made building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
Photo: Tom, mythatchedhut.com, 2016
Carrier snails are a genus (Xenophora) of deep-sea snails of varying size that cement pieces of rock, shells, and even sea glass to their own shells as they grow. The results are art-like decorative patterns that serve as their moving homes. Carrier snails can attach progressively bigger pieces of debris to their shells as they grow larger and older. This makes their shell decorations a kind of life story. The purpose of this decoration isn’t to attract attention, but to avoid it by blending into the ocean floor.
Photo: Allyson Woodyard
Trapdoor spiders are a small family (Ctenizidae) of spiders who build underground burrows with a disguised, silken-hinged door at the entrance. They occupy these burrows for their entire life, which can sometimes be as long as 20 years. Their homes also play a key role in making sure they get fed. A set of silk tripwires built into the burrow help identify insect prey walking by. When unsuspecting insects do walk by, these spiders spring out of hiding and grab their prey.
Photo: Smithsonian Magazine, 2017
Prairie dogs are a genus (Cynomys) of burrowing rodents who live in extensive underground burrows. These underground homes feature a web of tunnels and chambers including nurseries, sleeping quarters and listening posts for predators. Black-tailed prairie dogs live in larger burrows known as “towns.” This extended living arrangement usually spans less than half a square mile in size. However, the largest town ever recorded was an astounding 25,000 square miles and estimated to be home to some 400 million prairie dogs.
Drawing: Mark Marcuson, University of Nebraska-Omaha, 2011
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Top photo credit: Fareedz via Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA 4.0