In this third and final episode of WILD WORKERS we look at how some animals working together can create empires, some that are so extensive they are clearly visible from space. Like all empires some are always in a state of flux, expanding and diminishing dependent on the forces at work upon them. Some empire engineers have been building for far longer than humans have existed on the planet, yet the concrete jungles that we are building are in many cases outpacing those of the natural world. Yet some animals either by choice or through necessity have adapted to the human empires built around them.
The largest built structure on earth is not made by humans. The Great Barrier Reef is one of nature’s greatest wonders. Constructed by tiny corals it is over two thousand kilometres long and at its widest two hundred and forty kilometres across, and home to one of the most complex communities on the planet. The coral structures we can see are made of limestone, and hidden inside are thousands of very hard-working little animals called coral polyps. Not much on its own, but with billions working together over a half a million years they’ve constructed an empire on a scale that is almost impossible to comprehend.
North American prairie dogs are another species who build great empires, but theirs are underground. The biggest prairie dog town known is home to four million individuals. One town, as they are known, stretches over six hundred thousand hectares. As they are town dwellers, the prairie dogs often cooperate and keep a watchful eye out for predators. They even have developed a complex language of their own that can tell each other if the danger is coming from above or below.
Some of the greatest empires on the face of the earth are created by some of the smallest creatures – ants. In most environments if the weight of all of the animals was added together, ants would make up one fifth of the total. Combined with their ability to work together as a seamless unit it’s a formula for world domination. And one species of ant, known as slave-maker ants, try to do exactly that. Using subterfuge and force a colony of slave-makers will take over and then rule the colony of a completely different species. One slave-maker colony can expand its empire by taking over up to six slave colonies in a year, but eventually the slaves rebel and the slave-makers colony diminishes.
Our empires are now jungles of concrete and expanding at an ever increasing pace and overwhelming the natural world. Yet many wild animals have come to terms with our cities and have moved in. Pigeons are cliff dwellers, and find skyscrapers to their liking. Squirrels and racoons, foxes even koalas and a host of other animals live amongst the human inhabitants.
Like any powerful animal empire our reach is far and wide. But most animals are unable to cope with the rapid changes and the loss of their environments and their homes. It is we who are the architects of this new world.