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Ecosystem alteration of boreal forest streams by beaver castor canadensis

Ecosystem alteration of boreal forest streams by beaver castor canadensis

Ecology (Washington D C) 67(5): 1254-1269

Beaver (Castor canadensis) alter the structure and dynamics of aquatic ecosystems with a minimum of direct energy or nutrient transfer. Through dam building and feeding activities, beaver act as a keystone species to alter hydrology, channel geomorphology, biogeochemical pathways, and community productivity. Here we consider the effects of beaver activity on several major ecosystem components and processes in boreal forest drainage networks in Quebec, Canada. The density of dams on the small streams (.ltoreq. 4th order) we studied averages 10.6 dams/km; the streams retain up to 6500 m3 of sediment per dam, and the wetted surface area of the channel is increased up to several hundred-fold. Beaver are also active in larger order streams (.gtoreq. 5th order), but their effects are most noticeable along riverbanks and in floodplains. Comparative carbon budget's per unit area for a riffle on 2nd order Beaver Creek and a beaver pond downstream show the pond receives only 42% of the carbon acquired by the riffle annually. However, because the pond has a surface area seven times greater that the riffle, it receives nearly twice as much carbon as the riffle per unit of channel length. Carbon in the pond has an estimated turnover time of .apprxeq. 61 yr compared to .apprxeq. 24 yr for the riffle. Beaver ponds are important sites for organic matter processing the stream metabolism index (SMI), a measure of ecosystem efficiency for the utilization or storage of organic inputs, is 1.63 for the pond compared to 0.30 for the riffle; the turnover length (S) for particulate carbon is 1.2 km for the pond compared to 8.0 km for the riffle. Beaver-induced alterations to the structure and function of streams suggest removal of beaver prior to 1900 AD had substantial effects on the dynamics of lotic ecosystems. Our results suggest that current concepts of the organization and diversity of unaltered stream ecosystems in North America should recognize the keystone role of beaver, as drainage networks with beaver are substantially different in their biogeochemical economies than those without beaver.

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Accession: 005212736

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DOI: 10.2307/1938681

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