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Ecological engineering and aquatic connectivity: a new perspective from beaver‐modified wetlands

Hood, Glynnis A., Larson, David G.
Freshwater biology 2015 v.60 no.1 pp. 198-208
Castoridae, agricultural land, aquatic ecosystems, aquatic habitat, basins, ecosystem engineering, ecosystem engineers, foraging, freshwater, habitat fragmentation, ponds, riparian areas, soil, streams, upland forests, wetlands
Habitat fragmentation and wetland loss due to anthropogenic causes are usually attributed to physical modifications of the environment; however, the loss of key species can compound these impacts and further reduce the connectivity of aquatic ecosystems. Ecosystem engineers can play a critical role in modifying aquatic systems by altering the bed of ponds and streams, increasing water coverage and influencing biogeochemical processes within and adjacent to freshwater habitats. However, there is a paucity of research on how these organisms enhance connectivity among aquatic habitats, especially in otherwise isolated wetland systems. In this study, we collected field data at natural and agriculturally impacted sites to quantify physical alterations to otherwise isolated, morainal wetlands modified by beavers, and to determine how these modifications might enhance connectivity. For finer‐scale analysis, we collected and modelled bathymetric data for 16 wetlands, eight of which were occupied by beavers and eight abandoned by beavers. We demonstrated that beavers actively increase the volume‐to‐surface area ratio of wetlands by almost 50% and that their digging of foraging channels increases average wetland perimeters by over 575%. Some channels were 200–300 m long, which enhanced the interface between the riparian zone and upland forests. A coarse estimate of soil displacement due to the digging of channels by beavers exceeded 22 300 m³within the total 13 km²natural area. Additional measures of wetland depth, basin complexity and basin circularity revealed other dramatic differences between wetlands with beavers and those without in both natural and agricultural landscapes. Exclusion or removal of beavers could limit ecosystem processes and resilience, especially in areas with otherwise isolated aquatic habitats and limited connectivity. Conversely, reintroduction of such an ecosystem engineer into areas targeted for restoration could result in significant increase in habitat heterogeneity and connectivity.