Ecosystem engineers are organisms whose presence or activity alters their physical surroundings or changes the flow of resources, thereby creating or modifying habitats. Because ecosystem engineers affect communities through environmentally mediated interactions, their impact and importance are likely to shift across environmental stress gradients. We hypothesize that in extreme physical environments, ecosystem engineers that ameliorate physical stress are essential for ecosystem function, whereas in physically benign environments where competitor and consumer pressure is typically high, engineers support ecosystem processes by providing competitor- or predator-free space. Important ecosystem engineers alleviate limiting abiotic and biotic stresses, expanding distributional limits for numerous species, and often form the foundation for community development. Because managing important engineers can protect numerous associated species and functions, we advocate using these organisms as conservation targets, harnessing the benefits of ecosystem engineers in various environments. Developing a predictive understanding of engineering across environmental gradients is important for furthering our conceptual understanding of ecosystem structure and function, and could aid in directing limited management resources to critical ecosystem engineers.
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Vol. 56 • No. 3