Both Charles Townes and Jack Kilby, in discussing the Nobel Prizes in Physics they received for work related to the laser and the integrated circuit, respectively, showed a fondness for a particular cartoon.
It shows a rabbit and a beaver standing in front of the Hoover Dam, and the beaver says, “No, I didn’t build it myself, but it’s based on an idea of mine.” Their references to this comic show how well both men understood that their research depended on previous work in the field, but I appreciate the joke as a reminder of the magnificence of animal architecture.
Beavers may build structures large enough to change water flow and impact wildlife all around the region, but they are not the only animals with impressive building skills.
Sociable weavers live up to their name. These birds of southern Africa build nests that are massive enough for more than a hundred pairs of birds to nest inside. They can last for many generations, and perhaps as much as a century. Many animals seek shelter from the harsh Kalahari Desert in social weaver nests, including pygmy falcons, barbets, finches, skinks, lovebirds and wasps.
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Weaver ants (no relation) build nests with more teamwork than most people could imagine is possible for such small animals. Their nests are made out of leaves that remain attached to the plant and that must be moved into place without being damaged or severed from the plant. The living leaves do not become brittle as dead leaves would. Weaver ants pull leaves into position using the combined weight and force of many ants holding onto one another in giant chains. They must work in a coordinated way to move leaves together that would otherwise be too far out of reach. Adult weaver ants use silk secreted by their larvae to attach the leaves to each other and keep them from separating. Larvae of most ant species use this silk to create a cocoon, but weaver ants must pupate without this covering.
Trapdoor spiders are another group of animals capable of building incredible structures that allow them to maintain favorable temperatures and levels of humidity inside. They live in underground burrows that they excavate themselves and then line with silk. They cover the entrance with a trapdoor — complete with a hinge that is also made of silk — and camouflage it with dirt, silk, moss and other plants.
If predators try to get in, the spiders hold the door shut by grasping it with their chelicerae (jaws). Some species lay trip wires out of silk near the burrow to assist them with their ambush style of hunting. When movement along one of these strands alerts them to an unsuspecting beetle, frog, cricket, baby bird or other prey item that they can consume, they emerge from their burrow, grab the prey and haul it into the burrow, all in about a second.
These animals’ accomplishments have not regularly been remarked upon by Nobel Laureates, but that doesn’t make them any less remarkable.