In nature, most animal’s shelters are far from spectacular: a bird will stack a few twigs into a nest, or a rodent will dig a cozy burrow for itself. At the same time, some species build homes so large they could make a billionaire blush.
When scientists in South America came across a habitat that dwarfed any structure built by humans, they could hardly believe it. However, their colleagues across the world claimed they’d discovered some even more impressive dwellings…
More and more people are flocking to these mysterious, towering mounds in northeast Brazil. Though they look like natural rock formations, these structures actually come from a carefully crafted design — but not one any human could think up.
Kakadu National Parks
In fact, thousands of them have popped up all over the region. From end to end, they cover an area of nearly 90,000 square miles. To put that in perspective, it matches the size of Great Britain but somehow remained undiscovered until 2018.
The Independent / Stephen Martin
That’s because dense vegetation obscures the view of the 200 million cones. Humans only came across them thanks to the expansion of farmland and satellite imaging. But what exactly built these structures? And how?
They are all termite mounds! Though best known for chowing down on wood, these bugs also construct amazing works of architecture, and this colony in Brazil may just be their masterpiece — especially when you consider the soil analysis.
Soil analysis revealed the termites began their colony at the same time the Egyptians built the pyramids! Over time, competing termite colonies merged to form this wonder. Many scientists would call termites the greatest animal architects, but not all of them…
You also have to give some credit to the bower bird. These flamboyant creatures are essentially the Martha Stewarts of the animal kingdom. The wild thing is, these nests are purely for attraction purposes; the bowerbirds never actually live inside them!
The male Vogelkop bowerbird uses twigs and grass to make these huts—also called bowers—in order to attract a female. He then arranges various brightly colored objects inside them to sweeten the deal.
Just about any shiny or unusual object will attract a curious bowerbird. Once something grabs their attention, they will flutter down, pick up the treasure, and bring it back home — and for a very good reason.
To attract the hottest lady bird, of course! But bowerbirds will also fill their homes with any unusual objects they find. Scraps of plastic, broken glass, small toys — what most humans consider trash, bowerbirds treat as beautiful decorations.
This entire process seems crazy, but the truth is, it actually works. Once a female bowerbird finds a nest she likes, she performs a mating dance in front of her new home. Go ahead, take a bow(erbird) but you are only just kicking off our list of incredible animal architects.
Not to be outdone by a bird, whenever a male pufferfish wants to attract a mate, he’ll make this pattern by flapping his fins along the seafloor. The more complex the pattern, the more likely he is to impress. Apparently, good art makes lady pufferfish swoon.
This is Colassal / Pinterest
These insects may be a nuisance when invading your home or crawling on your ankles during picnics, but they’re actually pretty great artists. Just take a look at this ant colony. That’s some seriously complex architecture!
New Communities / Flickr
Not every ant carves out complex castles beneath the soil. The weaver ant, for instance, does a little bit of origami to build its home. Working together, some ants hold the leaves while others make a floss-like strand to tie the leaves together.
Ingo Argot / Imgur
As if these wasps weren’t enough trouble, they’re capable of creating nests that are both beautiful and frightening. In this particular case, the wasps formed their papery nest around a wood statue.
CountBubs / reddit
Red ovenbirds birds actually make their nests out of clay, mud, and grass, and they can take up to 2,000 flights looking for the perfect materials to make them. Their effort is worth it since these 12-pound hovels would make any ceramics teacher proud!
Red Koi / Imgur
The million-dollar question here is; what’s a spongilla fly? They’re little veiny scavenger flies whose larvae feed off sponges in lakes and rivers. When a female lays eggs, she weaves a lovely, intricate web around the cocoon.
A classy bug like this isn’t about to pupate out in the open where anyone or anything can see ’em. Instead, the caddisfly larvae build these tough cocoons out of pebbles, weeds, sand, or anything else they can find. Safety (and privacy) first!
heatherkh / Flickr
Mud daubers are insects make fascinating tubes so they can fill them with larvae and paralyzed insects. Then, they seal them shut. You can only imagine what happens to the paralyzed spiders when the larvae hatch…
Pollinator / Wikimedia
At 350,000 square meters, this famous reef is undoubtedly massive. But what makes it art, exactly? Well, living organisms are building it without a single power tool or YouTube tutorial every single day! Heck, most of it is made of living things!
Lock the Gate Alliance / Flickr
This might look like a little hill to us, but by an ant’s standards, this mound is a massive skyscraper! The complexity far exceeds what you might think ants would be capable of creating.
Not to be outdone by the sociable weaver, the baya weaver forms a beautiful nest all its own. Typically found in colonies, these birds usually hang their homes above waterways to keep out of the reach of predators.
ramnath1971 / Flickr
Spiders are, undoubtedly, the planet’s master web-weavers, but this has to take the cake. A graduate student was the first to spot one of these, which scientists now know is an egg sac. The jury’s still out on what kind of spider made it and how, however.
Troy S. Alexander / Tambopata Research Center
When you’re done trying to calculate just how fast one of these cute little swallows can move when unladen, take a look at their nests. Made entirely from bird spit and mud, they’re undoubtedly impressive.
Red Koi / Flickr
It wouldn’t be a true collection of artistic animals without mentioning beavers. These critters have shown time and time again that they know how to divert and blockade rivers and streams in style. They’re like nature’s little carpenters.
Hugo.arg / Wikimedia
These buck-toothed mammals expertly chew down trees and form impressive dams. Though these structures are often a nuisance for humans, we have to give them credit for what they did in Alberta, Canada.
Flickr / Kayla Alvidrez
When scanning through Wood Buffalo National Park on Google Earth in 2014, scientists found something completely unexpected: a huge beaver dam. That’s right, these rodents built a structure visible from outer space! Take that, termites.
The length of this beaver-topia clocked in at close to 3,000 feet, well over twice the length of the Hoover Dam! Naturally, somebody had to get a closer look at this feat of animal engineering.
Rob Mark of Maplewood, New Jersey set off on a solo trek to Wood Buffalo. Braving waist-deep swamps and swarms of mosquitoes, he finally reached the dam. He expected a towering view but got something else entirely.
The dam, while extending in every direction as far as the eye could see, rose only a bit above the ground. Foliage covered most of the structure, which explained why humans hadn’t noticed it. The beavers certainly put together a practical home.
Reddit / Loisdenominator
When this rare Osmia avosetta bee needs to make a nest, it doesn’t just settle for your standard beehive. Instead, it crafts three-chambered nests that utilize flower petals as the outside layer. It’s actually quite pretty!
Montezuma oropendolas is yet another bird that proves itself to be among the great artists of the animal kingdom—and maybe humankind as well. Using vines and grass, these guys construct intricate colonies that look like stylish chandeliers.
Charles J. Sharp / Wikimedia
Found in southern Africa, the weaver makes these big nests that serve as the home for generations of weavers. It’s very hot inside, which keeps the birds toasty and cozy at all times.
sara_joachim / Flickr
These spiders might have just been trying to avoid a flood in Pakistan, but in the process, they created something eerily beautiful. These web-covered trees are nothing if not impressive. (They’re also a little terrifying!)
UK Department for International Development / Flickr
While many of the best animal architects exist out in the wilderness, some might live in your own backyard. Check out these little guys. No, those aren’t lawn ornaments. That’s a family of prairie dogs.
These rodents live in plains regions all over North America. Their territories tend to experience harsh weather all year round — blizzards, floods, and even tornadoes — which means they need to find shelters that are impervious to all these threats.
Prairie dogs dig out extensive tunnel networks invisible to the human eye. These winding homes are more organized than you would think. They designate certain areas like bedrooms, nurseries, and even bathrooms.
Each prairie dog family usually has its own network, and they don’t tend to stray too far. They build many holes for easy escapes, and certain burrows even function as listening posts, where they can figure out if the coast outside is clear or not.
As you can imagine, these tunnels really tear up the land and make it difficult for humans to build nearby. People often try to drive out prairie dogs when developing a new area, but somehow these little guys persist.