Ecological engineering across a spatial gradient: Sociable weaver colonies facilitate animal associations with increasing environmental harshness
The spatial distribution of animals in a landscape depends mainly on the distribution of resources. Resource availability is often facilitated by other species and can positively influence local species diversity and affect community structure. Species that significantly change resource availability are often termed, ecosystem engineers. Identifying these species is important but predicting where they have large or small impacts is a key challenge that will enhance the usefulness of the ecosystem engineering concept. In harsh and stressful environments, the stress gradient hypothesis predicts that community structure and function will be increasingly influenced by facilitative interactions. To test this hypothesis, we investigate how the ecosystem engineering role and importance of sociable weavers Philetairus socius varies across a spatial gradient of harshness, for which aridity served as a proxy. These birds build large colonies that are home to hundreds of weavers and host a wide range of avian and non-avian heterospecifics. We investigated the use of weaver colonies on multiple taxa (invertebrates, reptiles, birds, and mammals) at multiple sites across a >1000 km aridity gradient. We show that sociable weaver colonies create localized biodiversity hots-spots across their range. Furthermore, trees containing sociable weaver colonies maintained localized animal diversity at sites with lower rainfall, an effect not as pronounced at sites with higher rainfall. Our results were consistent with predictions of the stress gradient hypothesis, and we provide one of the first tests of this hypothesis in terrestrial animal communities. Facilitation and amelioration by ecosystem engineers may mitigate some of the extreme impacts of environmental harshness.