lleborgne
Thursday 7th , 2013
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In honor of the opening of the Imagination Workshop at Kidspace I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at the world’s non-human builders. Maybe there is something we can learn from them.

1425 No doubt, the first animal that comes to mind when you hear “nature’s builders” are beavers. Surely their impressive dam-building and tendency to re-landscape large areas of forest is evidence that humans are not the only animals capable of building. Why go to such great lengths to change their environment? Like us they seek to build a safe home for their family. This involves making a body of standing water in which they can build their lodge: a cone-shaped structure made of sticks and mud with multiple underwater entrances to a safe den inside. Can you imagine how hard it would be for a predator to get past the deep moat and secret underwater tunnels to get to your dinner? It is no wonder that beaver populations have been able to explode to pest-level from near-extinction in the 1840s. How can this rodent create such ingeniously effective structures? Did it have to experiment to get it just right? How have dams changed over the course of their evolution? Just like us they must have gone through a trial and error process where their species as a whole learned from each unsuccessful attempt.

1426 The next animal we want to visit is one of my favorite birds. They would score higher on the creative scale. The bower birds of New Guinea and Australia are fascinating tinkerers. While the beaver creates out of necessity for survival the bower birds create for the sake of beauty in the hopes of attracting the eye of a lovely girl bird. Unlike a bird’s nest, while it can have its own artistry (look up weaver bird’s nests) the structures made by bower birds meet no real need other than looking impressive and acting as a sort of art gallery for their treasures. Some are delicate walls of twigs, others are circular walls of moss. Males will decorate their structures with brightly colored objects to make their bower stand out. 1427 Sometimes these objects are man-made trash like blue bottle caps or red candy wrappers. Other times, they are green, yellow, or red fruit, flowers, mosses and fungi, black beetle wing cases or a grey/white path of pebbles, shells or bones leading to and through the bower. Each piece seems to be carefully selected and grouped according to color in a curiously organized display. Some even go as far as to decorate overhanging branches or chew up leaves to “paint” the walls of their bower! There are even species of bower birds in which groups of young males will apprentice under one male and help him make giant bowers. Somehow this must be very appealing to females as they will shop around vast neighborhoods to find the very best. Meanwhile, what can we learn from these creative birds? I would say not everything we make has to serve a purpose beyond bringing beauty or curiosity to the world.

1428 On a completely different mission, the mound building termites of Africa’s savannas and rainforests build giant pillars for the purpose of farming fungus! Most people would think that humans are the only farmers on this planet but these tiny creatures  are not only able to create conditions for their food to grow right in their own homes, they do it by building complex air conditioning units to ensure that their crop is always at it’s ideal temperature, humidity and air quality! (There are also species of ants and beetles that have developed the ability to farm fungi.) The fungi are actually grown in underground cellars but some species have pillars that can get 42ft high and are riddled with tunnels to allow air in or out. (Image on left courtesy Tourist Maker: http://www.touristmaker.com/ethiopia/) On a given day these termites might choose to close certain tunnels to block air flow or make new or bigger tunnels to increase air flow. The air inside the mound is generally higher in carbon dioxide and higher in humidity so as to favor fungal growth. The Cubiterme termites of West Africa even build umbrella shaped caps on their pillars to protect their colony from torrential rains. Another interesting facet of this animal’s amazing building feats is that their creations benefit the whole surrounding ecosystem. They have been known to improve soil quality for plants bringing more life to their environment. Any teacher would agree that our aim in instilling creativity and a love for tinkering in our children is that they would come to a point of not only improving their own lives but that of their community and world.

1429 Let’s come back closer to home for another interesting builder: the desert woodrat that we may find in nearby desert landscapes like the Sonoran Desert. Woodrats have a very interesting habit of building fortresses. While living in the desert can have its challenges, having prickly cholla cacti as your neighbor can come in handy. Woodrats will collect fallen stems of cacti and build a formidable covering over their dens ensuring that predators stay clear. In the family of the pack rat, these rats will also collect a variety of shiny objects to decorate their homes. While other animals would avoid cholla cactus stems, these rats have learned to turn them into a very useful material.

1430 Finally, though we could go on and on looking at all of nature’s amazing builders, we turn to the caddisfly. This delicate flying insect lays its eggs in streams and rivers around the world. From these eggs small larvae emerge and instantly start to cover their own bodies with a sticky silk. They then press themselves against small pebbles, twigs, shells in the river bed to create a perfectly camouflaged and strong casing to cover their soft and fragile bodies. Caddisfly larvae are a great example of a creature that thrives off of using whatever material they can find. In the Imagination Workshop, we encourage children to see every object, be it trash or something they would never see as useful, and turn it into something functional or just fun! An interesting last note: artists like Hubert Dupra have chosen these tiny insects as their co-artists. By simply replacing the pebbles and twigs of their native streambeds with tiny flakes of gold and small pearls and gems he has created beautiful and unique beads that can then be strung into jewelry!

Thus concludes our exploration of nature’s builders and tinkerers. If you would like more information on any of these animals or other examples of builders please don’t hesitate to contact me. I could talk about these fascinating creatures all day!

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Blog Entry by:

Louise Leborgne, Science Specialist, has been with Kidspace Children's Museum since 2012. She is in charge of caring for all of our live animals, as well as managing the Nature Exchange, developing curriculum for daily educational programs, and large events like Bug Fair and the Grand Butterfly Release.