Beavers to Weavers: Celebrating the beautiful things made by animals

From dawn birdsong to fireflies’ twinkling lanterns, the animal world enriches our lives. Discover how animals build their homes, make tools to catch food and even sing or give gifts to attract their mates.

By Leeds Museums & Galleries

Based on an exhibition held at Leeds City Museum

Red-backed Shrike nestLeeds Museums & Galleries

Homes

Many animals build homes for themselves or their babies. Some search for special materials, while others use what is nearby. Animals make homes of different shapes and sizes, in different places. They build their homes to suit their needs: warm or cool, dry or moist, showy or camouflaged. Most are comfy and safe.      

Wasp nest in Armadillo armourLeeds Museums & Galleries

Social insect homes

Social insects such as many bees, wasps, ants and termites, build nests together out of several ‘cells’. Sometimes millions of insects work together, making huge homes. These buildings may contain stores of food, eggs, babies, and even gardens. This wasp nest was built inside the armour of a dead armadillo.      

Leafcutter Bee nestsLeeds Museums & Galleries

Solitary insect homes

Solitary insects, who live on their own or in small groups, make tiny homes. Insects may use leaves, petals or mud to make their homes. Some are built inside plants or underground for extra protection. Leafcutter Bees cut neat sections of leaf to make their homes with. They glue them together with their saliva. They build their homes in safe places like holes in rotting wood or old walls.     

Raft Spider egg sac, spider egg sac, mantis oothecaLeeds Museums & Galleries

Egg sacs and cases

Some animals make egg sacs or cases to help their babies grow and hatch safely. Female spiders spin egg sacs with silk. Female Praying Mantises make a foamy froth with special glands. They lay their eggs in the froth. The froth hardens and protects the eggs while they develop. A mantis egg sac is called an ootheca.  

Argonaut egg caseLeeds Museums & Galleries

Argonaut egg case

This beautiful object looks like a shell, but is actually the egg case of an Argonaut, a type of octopus. The female Argonaut secretes the egg case from special tentacles. She lays her eggs in it, and also shelters in it herself.   

Mermaid's purseLeeds Museums & Galleries

Mermaid's purse

Mermaid’s purses are the egg cases of some sharks, rays and skates. Before a female lays an egg, her special ‘shell gland’ surrounds it with a case made of protein. The egg case is tough and well camouflaged. The little tendrils on mermaid’s purses help them attach to seaweed.      

Linnet nestLeeds Museums & Galleries

Bird nests

Many birds build cup-shaped nests, which keep eggs and chicks safe and warm inside. One or both parents also sit on the eggs to incubate them, so the nests must be strong. Some nests built by other birds look like soft, cosy slippers.  

Dunnock nest and eggsLeeds Museums & Galleries

Thrush nest and eggsLeeds Museums & Galleries

Hummingbird nestsLeeds Museums & Galleries

These miniature nests are coated in bits of lichen, adding camouflage. Spider silk helps hold the nests together.     

Tailorbird nest and eggsLeeds Museums & Galleries

A Tailorbird sews leaves together to make a safe place for her nest. She uses her sharp beak to pierce holes through the edge of leaves. She joins edges together using plant fibres or spider silk. This becomes a camouflaged cup to build her nest in.     

Long-tailed Tit adult, eggs and nestLeeds Museums & Galleries

Long-tailed Tits are woodland birds who build their nests in the forks of trees or bushes. Their nests look like soft, cosy slippers. A pair spend between 1-3 weeks making their nest. They gather lots of material, including moss, lichen, spider egg cases and feathers.    

Castor fiber, European BeaverLeeds Museums & Galleries

Beavers

Beavers are well known for their building skills. Beavers are safer from predators in the water. They build dams across rivers using mud, stones and sticks. This slows the river down, forming a pond. They build their home (‘lodge’) in the pond, with logs and branches. The entrance to the lodge is underwater, keeping out predators. They also store food underwater so that it is safe from other animals during the winter. Beavers can also build canals to link up ponds. 

Moth cocoonsLeeds Museums & Galleries

Changes

Animals go through changes at different times in their lives. They may be protected inside an egg or nest when they are tiny, make homes for themselves when they have grown up, and also need protection when they are in that awkward phase between the two. Some insects make special structures to keep themselves safe when they are vulnerable.   

Bramble gallLeeds Museums & Galleries

Galls

Galls are growths on plants caused by insects such as Gall Wasps. There are lots of different types and each makes its gall in a particular type of plant, and in a certain type of plant tissue. A female Gall Wasp injects her eggs into a plant with an ‘ovipositor’, which looks like a sharp needle. It’s thought that special chemicals injected by Gall Wasps make the plant grow differently, forming a safe home as well as a source of food for the babies.  

Marble gallLeeds Museums & Galleries

Marble Gall

Marble galls are growths on plants caused by Gall Wasps. There are lots of different types and each makes its gall in a particular type of plant, in this case the stem of an oak tree. A female Gall Wasp injects her eggs into a plant with an ‘ovipositor’, which looks like a sharp needle. It’s thought that special chemicals injected by Gall Wasps make the plant grow differently, forming a gall. The gall is a safe home as well as a source of food for the babies.  

Robin's Pin Cushion gallLeeds Museums & Galleries

Robin's Pin Cushion Gall

The Robin's pincushion (also called a Rose Bedeguar Gall) is a red, round, hairy growth that can be seen on wild rose buds. It is caused by the larvae of a tiny gall wasp that feeds on the host plant, but causes little damage.  

Truffle gallLeeds Museums & Galleries

Truffle gall

The Truffle Gall is named because of the similarity of it's skin to that of certain species of truffle. It is caused by The Truffle Gall Wasp and are made on oak trees.  

Cherry gallLeeds Museums & Galleries

Cherry gall

The cherry gall wasp produces growths, or 'galls', on oak leaves that look like red cherries. Inside the gall, the larvae of the wasp feed on the host tissues, but cause little damage.  

Silk moth cocoonsLeeds Museums & Galleries

Cocoons

Some animals go through ‘metamorphosis’, changing from a baby into an adult that looks very different. While this change is happening, the young animal is vulnerable and needs to stay safe. Some young insects, such as moth caterpillars, build cocoons for extra protection.   

Eggar moth cocoonsLeeds Museums & Galleries

The Eggar moth caterpillar pupates on the ground inside a silken cocoon, the exterior of which is hard and yellowish, and resembles an acorn, hence the moth's name.  

Burnet moth cocoonsLeeds Museums & Galleries

The Burnet moth species overwinters as a larva. The larva pupates in early summer in a papery cocoon attached to a grass stem.  

Serpulid worm tubesLeeds Museums & Galleries

Defence

Animals need to keep safe from predators and other dangers in order to survive. Animals’ bodies have evolved in a huge variety of ways to defend themselves, including built-in armour, shocking or camouflaged colours, poison or a bad smell. Some animals have also evolved making skills to build extra defences against danger.      

Trumpet Worm tube, Serpulid Worm tube, Sand Mason Worm tubeLeeds Museums & Galleries

Minibeast armour

Small animals like insects and worms can make nice snacks for predators. To defend themselves, some make suits of armour. Others camouflage themselves by using materials around them. Some marine worms build tubes around themselves, keeping them safe while they filter food from the sea.  Sand Mason Worms make their tubes with mucus, sand, and shells. Trumpet Worms mix a specially secreted glue with sand and shell fragments. Tube Worms build their armour by secreting calcium which hardens.    

Mussel growing Buddha-shaped pearlsLeeds Museums & Galleries

Mollusc defences

Most molluscs are well protected by shells. Some molluscs add extra layers of defence to stay safe.  Lots of molluscs can produce pearls to defend themselves against parasites or grit getting into their shells. Some types, such as oysters, are farmed to produce the pearls people use as jewels. Tiny Buddha-shaped objects were inserted into this oyster. In an attempt to defend itself the mussel has grown pearl over the objects, making miniature pearl Buddha figures.     

Carrier shellsLeeds Museums & Galleries

Carrier shells

These animals make themselves bigger, spinier and more camouflaged by cementing objects to their shells as they grow. Carrier Shells use their ‘foot’ to hold an object at the edge of its shell. Then they make new shell material that hardens and fixes the object in place.    

Shipworm boringsLeeds Museums & Galleries

Feeding

Finding, gathering and eating food is an important part of most animals’ lives. We all need to eat to grow, move, and keep our bodies running smoothly. Some animals make traps to catch other animals to eat. Others make gardens to grow their food.  Lots of animals leave signs of their eating that form beautiful reminders of the animals we share our world with.     

Elm Bark Beetle boringsLeeds Museums & Galleries

Plum Bark Beetle boringsLeeds Museums & Galleries

Pea and Bean Beetle holesLeeds Museums & Galleries

Cones gnawed by squirrelsLeeds Museums & Galleries

Trapdoor Spider trapLeeds Museums & Galleries

Tools and gardening

Animals from insects to humans make things to help them catch animals to eat, and grow plants and fungus to harvest. A Trapdoor Spider built this with silk, soil and plants. The lid is attached with silk. The spider makes silk trip wires around the trapdoor. The spider hides inside, keeping the trapdoor shut while it clings to the underside of the lid with its feet. If you look closely you can see the marks the spider’s feet left in the lid. When the trip wires are disturbed, the spider comes out and catches its prey.        

Trapdoor Spider trapLeeds Museums & Galleries

Trapdoor Spider trapLeeds Museums & Galleries

Paradisaea apoda, Greater Bird of ParadiseLeeds Museums & Galleries

Attraction

Animals need to make babies to keep their genes alive. Most animals need to mate to do this, and some animals use their making skills to attract mates. Different animals make elaborate structures, music, dance or illuminations, or give gifts as tokens of love.  

Brown-lipped Snail love dartLeeds Museums & Galleries

Love dart

This tiny arrow is a ‘gypsobelum’, or love dart, from a Brown-lipped Snail. Some slugs and snails release love darts during courtship. Snails and slugs also perform courtship dances together before mating.        

This story was inspired by the award-winning Beavers to Weavers exhibition held at Leeds City Museum between 2018 - 2019.

If you want to learn more about the topics in this story, including the creation of sustainable exhibitions, listen to series 1 episode 1 of the Leeds Museums & Galleries podcast featuring Rebecca Machin, Curator of Natural Science.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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