The beaver – our wetland rescuer

The beavers (Castor canadensis and Castor fiber) have recovered from near extinction, and come to the rescue of wetland biodiversity. Two major processes drive boreal wetland loss: the near extinction of beavers, and extensive draining (if we exclude the effects of the ever-expanding human population). Beaver dams have produced over 500 square kilometers of wetlands in Europe during the past 70 years.

 

The wetland creation of beavers begins with the flood. As floodwaters rise into the surrounding forest, soil and vegetation are washed into the water system. The amount of organic carbon increases in the wetland during the first three impoundment years, after which they gradually begin reverting back to initial levels. The increase in organic carbon facilitates the entire wetland food web in stages, beginning with plankton and invertebrates, and ending in frogs, birds and mammals.

The previous shoreline is very evident from an aerial photograph. Also the beaver flooded area shows clearly. © Antti Nykänen

The previous shoreline is very evident from an aerial photograph. Also the beaver flooded area shows clearly. © Antti Nykänen

Beaver-created wetlands truly become frog paradises. The wide shallow water area creates suitable spawning and rearing places. The shallow water warms up rapidly, and accelerates hatching and tadpole development. Beaver-created wetlands also ensure ample nutrition. The organic carbon increase raises the amounts of tadpole nutrition (plankton and protozoans) in the wetland, along with the nutriment of adult frogs (invertebrates). Furthermore, the abundant vegetation creates hiding places against predators for both tadpoles and adult frogs.

Beaver-created wetlands are perfect rearing places for frogs. The warm water accelerates hatching and the abundant aquatic vegetation gives cover against predators. © Mia Vehkaoja

Beaver-created wetlands are perfect rearing places for frogs. The warm water accelerates hatching and the abundant aquatic vegetation gives cover against predators. © Mia Vehkaoja

The flood and beaver foraging kill trees in the riparian zone. Deadwood is currently considered a vanishing resource. Finnish forests have an average 10 cubic meters of deadwood per hectare, whereas beavers produce over seven times more of the substrate into a landscape. Beaver-produced deadwood is additionally very versatile. Wind, fire and other natural disturbances mainly create two types of deadwood: coarse snags and downed logs. Beavers, on the other hand, produce both snags and downed logs of varying width, along with moderately rare deciduous deadwood. The more diverse the deadwood assortment is, the richer the deadwood-dependent species composition that develops in the landscape.

Beaver-created wetlands produce  especially standing deadwood. © Mia Vehkaoja

Beaver-created wetlands produce especially standing deadwood. © Mia Vehkaoja

Deadwood-dependent species are one of the most endangered species groups in the world. The group includes e.g. lichens, beetles and fungi. Currently there are 400 000 to a million deadwood-dependent species in the world. Over 7000 of these inhabit Finland. Pin lichens are lichens that often prefer snags as their living environment. Beaver actions produce large amounts of snags, which lead to diverse pin lichen communities. Snags standing in water provide suitable living conditions for pin lichens; a constant supply of water is available from the moist wood, and the supply of light is additionally limitless in the open and sunny beaver wetlands.

 

The return of beavers has helped the survival of many wetland and deadwood-associated species in Finland, Europe and North America. Only 1000 beavers inhabited Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. Now over a million beavers live in Europe. I argue that this increase has been a crucial factor benefitting the survival and recovery of wetland biodiversity. Finland and the other EU member states still have plenty of work to do to achieve the goals of the EU Water Framework Directive. Both the chemical conditions and the biodiversity of wetlands / inland waters affect the biological condition and quality of wetlands.

 

The whole research published here

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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

Frogs love beaver-created wetlands

Amphibian and wetland loss is occurring globally at an increasing rate. Since the 1900s, approximately half of the world’s wetlands have been destroyed. During this time up to two-thirds of European wetlands were lost at a regional scale. This trend is reflected by the fact that 23% of Europe’s amphibians are threatened.

Wetlands in the boreal region are frequently constructed through the damming activities of an ecosystem engineer, the beaver (Castor sp.). They create and maintain special habitats by constructing dams. Beaver-created wetlands are open and sunny due to tree felling and flooding-induced tree mortality. They produce large quantities of woody debris and detritivorous invertebrates, e.g. chironomids and Asellus. Beaver ponds contain structurally heterogeneous vegetation.

Beaver-created wetlands contain structurally heterogeneous vegetation, as well as open water areas. © Mia Vehkaoja

Beaver-created wetlands contain structurally heterogeneous vegetation, as well as open water areas. © Mia Vehkaoja

According to our new study beaver-created wetlands increase frog species heterogeneity and abundance. There are only three native anuran species in Finland (the common frog, the moor frog and the common toad), and all of them were found in beaver ponds. The moor frog (Rana arvalis) was only found in beaver ponds, where the common frog (Rana temporaria) was also most abundant. The common toad (Bufo bufo) prefers deeper wetlands than the other two species, but because beaver ponds contain both shallower and deeper parts, it was also found from the beaver ponds.

Beaver wetlands offer high quality habitats for anurans and facilitate the occurrence of moor frogs. The shallow and warm water areas accelerate the hatching and metamorphosis of tadpoles. The rich aquatic vegetation provides attaching places for spawn and protection against predators. The abundant vegetal detritus, zooplankton and aquatic invertebrates offer nutrition for both larvae and adults. In addition, beaver-created wetlands create overwintering habitats that are less likely to freeze down to the bottom.

Both the moor frog (Rana arvalis) and the common frog (Rana temporaria) are the most abundant in beaver ponds. © Mia Vehkaoja

Both the moor frog (Rana arvalis) and the common frog (Rana temporaria) are the most abundant in beaver ponds. © Mia Vehkaoja

Beaver facilitation includes both habitat amelioration and resource enhancement. Frogs are not the only group that is benefitted by beaver activity. Other such groups are ducks, bats, woodpeckers and many invertebrates. These ecosystem engineers could be used in wetland restoration, and furthermore the beaver clearly promotes amphibian conservation.

Eradicating species – an occasional necessity

If Finland is to obey the EU strategy on Invasive Alien Species (IAS), 10 000 North American beavers (Castor Canadensis) are to come under the trigger. Why is this eradication necessary?

Although invasive alien species, e.g. the American mink (Neovison vison), the ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) and the Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera), may seem adorable and interesting novelties, they nearly always threaten the survival of native species. Invasive alien species are harmful to agriculture and forestry, and at their worst can even threaten human health. Sometimes we face the inevitable: the eradication of an animal or plant species.

The most efficient way to minimize the risks is to prevent it spreading to an area in the first place. Australia is probably the most famous example of preventing the spread of alien species, as they even clean the shoes of tourists at the airport before allowing them into the country. Unfortunately no nation has been successful in averting the spread of IAS.

Not that a tough fight isn’t being fought the new EU strategy on invasive alien species took effect earlier this year.

The main aim of the strategy is to aggregate a list of the most pernicious invasive alien species and to repulse them in different ways. Finland has 160 harmful IAS. Whether each of them will be on the EU’s black list remains unclear.

The North American beaver is first in line

The North American beaver is one of the most potential mammal alternatives for the list. The species was brought to Finland in the 1930s to save Finland’s beaver population. Back then the genetic differences between European and North American beavers were unknown, although we now know that the species differ even more than humans and chimpanzees.

The niches of both species are identical. They eat the same nutrition and their damming activities are the same. Both species have identical effects on ecosystems.

There are approximately 12 000 beavers in Finland. Most of them (10 000) are North American beavers, while European beavers comprise only a fifth of the North American beaver population. The North American beaver threatens the existence of the European beaver in Finland. It might eventually competitively exclude the European beaver. Adhering to the precautionary principle and seriously considering eradicating the North American beaver from Finland and Eurasia is essential. An eradication plan has nevertheless been conspicuously absent. An eradication plan for North American beavers would abide to the guidelines of both the IUCN’s and Finland’s National Strategy on Invasive Alien Species.

How to eradicate a species in practice?

A large scale eradication of the North American beaver is possible, at least in theory. Several possible methods could be used simultaneously, such as hunting, live capture, sterilization, reintroduction of the European beaver and population monitoring.

Beaver hunting is also financially tempting. Beaver furs have once again become popular in China, so their markets have a demand for beaver furs. After the sterilization or dead trapping of North American beavers, they should be replaced with European beavers.

But this is not a straightforward process. Although the two species differ genetically, they have a similar effect on the ecosystem. Beavers act as ecosystem engineers and benefit several other species in Finland and elsewhere. The present population size of the North American beaver ameliorates e.g. the green sandpiper (Tringa ochropus), the moor frog (Rana arvalis) and the Daubenton’s bat (Myotis daubentonii). However, if all North American beaver individuals were removed and replaced by European beavers, the eradication would be harmless to Finnish nature. Unfortunately, there is nothing to guarantee the success of the reintroductions.

Finland must begin eradication if the North American beaver is placed on the EU strategy plan on Invasive Alien Species. The activity of citizens and hunters will determine the eradication outcome. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in concert with the Finnish Advisory Board for Invasive Alien Species are in charge of the decisions and eradication procedures.