European Red Wood Ant (Formica polyctena) nests in pine forest, Hessen, Germany

European Red Wood Ant (Formica polyctena) nests in pine forest, Hessen, Germany (all photographs by Ingo Arndt, courtesy Abrams)

From the tiny harvest mouse twisting a humble home of blades of grass, to the lofty fields of compass termite towers appearing like relics of some ancient world, the structures of the animal kingdom are astounding in their complexity of forms. Nature photographer Ingo Arndt dedicated two years of traveling around the world to discover these builders, the results of which are published in a new book.

Cover of ‘Animal Architecture’

Animal Architecturereleased this month by Abrams, includes 120 photographs of creature constructions, with documentation from out in the field and detailed studio shots. Arndt, who has also photographed animal masses and congregations, notes in the book that the “great challenge existed not only in photographing the different species, but also in placing their constructions in the foreground.” Along with text by behavioral scientist Jürgen Tautz, the book presents an overview of animal architecture that may not be comprehensive, but is visually compelling in the intricacies of natural designs.

Function, unlike in some human architectures, alone drives the designs of the animal world. The caddis fly larva builds a hard shell around its soft body for protection, a result that is surprisingly beautiful and varied as it molds this armor from its habitat, whether it be bark, pebbles, shells, or sticks. The Australian weaver ants work together to assemble nests from leaves, while the more ambitious red wood ants have six-foot-tall mounds as their communal constructions.

However, in terms of devoted energy, it’s hard to beat the bowerbirds. The males build extravagant “courtship arenas” where nuts, berries, and even human detritus like coke cans and colorful bags are arranged deliberately in order to attract a mate. As Tautz writes, the “male pays excruciatingly precise attention to the state of the construction. If a branch slips once, it is immediately moved back into the correct position.” Alas, once he succeeds, the female usually builds her own nest where she raises their offspring alone.

These private habitats, from beaver lodges passed down through generations to the incredible layers of thin grass in the baya weaver bird nests, are presented in sharp detail, although are most fascinating when Arndt has captured the animals in action. There you can glimpse how these wonders of form have come out of the animal’s own anatomy and environment.

Baya Weaver (Ploceus philippinus) male flying to nest carrying grass (nesting material)/ Singapore

Green Tree Ant (Oecophylla smaragdina) group building nest by pulling on leaves and forming chains, Kakadu NP., Northern Territory, Australia

Vogelkop gardener bowerbird bower, built to win a mate

Cathedral Termite Mound (Nasutitermes triodiae) / Kakadu NP., Northern Territory, Australia

Field of compass termite towers in northern Australia

Animal Architecture by Ingo Arndt with text by Jürgen Tautz is available from Abrams. 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...