Scientists Acquire More Proof That Only Beavers Can Save the World

Ending the drought in the West, and perhaps worldwide, will require rain — as well as smarter ways to collect and store that water.  But something else that can keep things moist?  Believe it or not: Beavers.

Despite being  a hated pest and a nuisance in the eyes of many landowners and developers, as well as one of the animals that are regularly killed with depredation permits and by fur trappers. They remain a keystone species whose participation in the ecosystem creates benefits for almost all other flora and fauna, Dolman says. This is because of the way beavers’ hydro-engineering work affects the movement of water.
On California’s central coast, a region that usually receives drenching rainfall or fog for most of the year, some forests are now as arid as a desert. Streams that once ran at least at a trickle through summer have vanished in the ongoing drought, and environmentalists and fishermen fear that local salmon will disappear if climate conditions don’t improve.


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The landscape desperately needs rain — it could also use beavers.

The modern 21st century pillaging of Western watersheds by private for-profit companies like Nestlé, who are guzzling millions upon millions of gallons of municipal water, in tandem with ecologists who say the near extinction of Castor canadensis from parts of the West in the 19th century; have come together to cause these two great mishaps to magnify the effects of California’s worst dry spell since the of the era of irrigation began.

As the U.S. expanded westward beavers were nearly eradicated by humans because they were interfering with our logging and fishing industries. But that’s exactly why beavers need to return. Rivers and streams that have been diverted by humans are designed to remove water quickly from the watershed, destroying local habitats for animals and making it more difficult for an ecosystem to recover from drought.

“Beavers create shock absorption against drought,” says Brock Dolman, a scientist in Sonoma County who wants to repopulate coastal California with the big lumberjacking rodents. Beavers build infrastructure which help to slow the flow of water, letting it recharge local aquifers, and preventing erosion which helps keep plants alive.

stream-progression

Beaver dams help a stream to progress from an incised trench (a) to an aggraded channel (e–f) by creating a positive feedback loop that changes physical processes and vegetation to improve habitat for themselves and other species.

“Beavers aren’t actually creating more water, but they are altering how it flows, which creates benefits through the ecosystem,” says Michael Pollock, an ecosystems analyst and beaver specialist at the National Marine Fisheries Service Northwest Science Center.
Not everyone is a fan of the Bring Back the Beaver campaign. Ecologists can’t agree where beavers originally lived, for one, so they aren’t sure where they should be reintroduced. And they don’t want to end up with an invasive species, which is what happened in South America. But some scientists aren’t waiting around for a consensus. The Yurok Tribal Fisheries Program is taking matters into its own hands, hiring humans to build their own beaver-like structures to mimic the rodents’ beneficial environmental impact. It sounds like a dam good idea.

Seeing how beavers can help to save California from its seemingly endless drought, it also looks like they can save the world from industrial farming by changing the chemistry of the water, making them natural biochemists. For quite some time, the world starved for nitrogen. It’s a necessary component for life, and essential for growing crops. Nitrogen makes up most of the atmosphere around us, but getting it out of the air and into the soil could only be done by certain plants and creatures. As nitrogen was sucked from the soil, crop land grew less and less productive and people went hungry. The discovery of nitrogen fixation — grabbing nitrogen from the air and putting it into fertilizers — has saved billions of people from starvation.

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But every discovery has its drawbacks. Nitrogen fertilizers on farm land get washed into streams, where they fuel an algae population boom.

The algae use up the oxygen in the streams, the rivers, and eventually parts of the ocean, leaving nothing for the fish and leading to large “dead zones.” Biologists at the University of Rhode Island were studying the nitrogen content of streams and noticed something odd: whenever there were beaver ponds upstream, nitrogen levels dropped. Beaver ponds slow down river water, and they mix it with organic matter, which must have an effect on river chemistry, but scientists didn’t know exactly what was happening in that murky water.

So they made soda-bottle-sized “ponds” that let them study variations on the conditions the beavers set up in their real-life ponds. And they found a kind of reverse nitrogen fixation process was occurring — call it “denitrification.” Bacteria in the dirt and the plant debris turned nitrates into nitrogen gas. The gas bubbled up to the surface and mixed with the atmosphere once more. In some cases, the level of nitrogen in the water dropped 45%.

beaver-on-a-log

For more info check out the PBS series Leave It To Beavers.

The effect was most pronounced in small streams, which lead to bigger rivers and eventually to the ocean. Beavers often set up their homes in these tiny streams—or they did before they were trapped or driven away. Re-introducing them might completely change downstream chemistry, make these environments more livable not just for the beavers, but for their fellow creatures, too.

Sources: [1] [2] [3]

 

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