Beavers restore the dead wood of boreal forests

Dead wood is a necessary element for numerous species living in the boreal zone. It functions as a food resource, nesting space or growth substrate for several mammals, fungi, insects, and birds. Dead wood is produced through two main mechanisms: senescence and disturbances e.g. forest fires or wind damage. A controlled forest has less ageing trees and disturbances, and currently up to 90% of Fennoscandian forests have been influenced by forest management. The recent drop in dead wood levels due to intensive forest management across the globe has concurrently led to dead wood-dependent (= saproxylic) species becoming rare as well, which weakens food webs and ecosystem functionality. Managed forests may only contain a few cubic meters of dead wood per hectare, while dead wood levels in old-growth forests and forests influenced by disturbances can rise up to hundreds of cubic meters per hectare.

Beaver, the ecosystem engineer © Sari Holopainen

Beaver, the ecosystem engineer © Sari Holopainen

Strong disturbances are less frequent in moist lowland areas of the boreal zone, where dead wood is mainly created as single trees die due to competition and ageing. However, beavers act as wetland ecosystem engineers, raising floodwaters through the damming of water systems. These floodwaters kill surrounding shore forests due to oxygen deprivation, thus creating significant amounts of dead wood into the habitats. In certain cases the flooding may kill entire forest stands. Beavers can therefore be considered the main natural disturbance factor of lowland forests.

Beavers require wood for food and as a building material for their nests and dams. Foraging for woody materials causes the resource to run out within a few years, forcing the beavers to move location. The process of flooding and dead wood creation begins again in a new area, thus producing a continuation of dead wood hotspots into the landscape. Eventually after several years the beavers can return to a previously inhabited location, which will be then be repeatedly subjected to their engineering. These hotspots may be very important to dead wood -dependent species, especially as they uphold a network and continuous supply of different-aged dead wood.

Calculating dead wood levels at a beaver flood - spot the researchers! ©Mia Vehkaoja

Calculating dead wood levels at a beaver flood – spot the researchers! ©Mia Vehkaoja

Despite an overall decrease in dead wood levels, certain types of dead wood have become rarer in the boreal forest than others. Currently the rarest forms are standing dead trees (snags) and deciduous dead wood. Both have declined more rapidly than other types due to forest management actions and attitudes. Beavers create a broad range of dead wood types (e.g. downed wood, stumps and coniferous dead wood), but they particularly aid in the production of snags and deciduous dead wood. This is good news for many saproxylic species, as these organisms are often strongly specialized, utilizing very specific dead wood types.

The dead wood produced by beaver-induced flooding is also very moist, which may affect the wood-decay fungi species that begin colonizing the dead wood. For example, sac fungi are more tolerant of wet conditions, and may therefore outcompete Basidiomycetes at beaver sites. This in turn will lead to differing invertebrate communities that utilize sac fungi instead of Basidiomycetes. Very different dead wood –dependent species assemblages may therefore be formed at beaver sites compared to fire areas of clear-cuts. The interactions of these species are currently poorly understood.

The beaver offers a possibility for all-inclusive ecosystem conservation compared to the conservation of single species. The species could be used to produce dead wood and restore the shore forests of wetlands.

Our research group has recently published an article concerning the impacts beavers have on boreal dead wood. The article can be accessed from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378112715005757

Calculating dead wood levels at a beaver flood - spot the researchers! ©Mia Vehkaoja

Calculating dead wood levels at a beaver flood – spot the researchers! ©Mia Vehkaoja

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