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Signatures of self-assembly in size distributions of wood members in dam structures of Castor canadensis

David M. Blersch, Patrick C. Kangas
Global ecology and conservation 2014 v.2 pp. 204-213
Castor canadensis, energy, landscapes, lotic systems, rivers, sediments, subsidies, teeth, watersheds, wood, North America
Beavers (Castor canadensis) construct dams on rivers throughout most of their historical range in North America, and their impact on water patterns in the landscape is considerable. Dam formation by beavers involves two processes: (1) intentional construction through the selection and placement of wood and sediment, which facilitates (2) the passive capture and accretion of suspended wood and sediment. The second process is a self-assembly mechanism that the beavers leverage by utilizing energy subsidies of watershed transport processes. The relative proportion of beaver activity to self-assembly processes in dam construction, however, is unknown. Here we show that lotic self-assembly processes account for a substantial portion of the work expended in beaver dam construction. We found through comprehensive measurement of the stick dimensions that the distributions for diameter, length, and volume are log-normal. By noting evidence of teeth markings, we determined that size distributions skewed significantly larger for wood handled by beavers compared to those that were not. Subsequent mass calculations suggest that beavers perform 50%–70% of the work of wood member placement for dam assembly, with riparian self-assembly processes contributing the remainder. Additionally, our results establish a benchmark for assessing the proportion of self-assembly work in similar riparian structures.