Beaver-generated disturbance extends beyond active dam sites to enhance stream morphodynamics and riparian plant recruitment.


Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of New Mexico, MSCO3-2040, 1 University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87131, USA. [Email]


Given the direct effects of their dams on hydrology, sediment storage, and vegetation, beaver are widely acknowledged as ecosystem engineers. Here we explore the effects of beaver activity on channel processes and riparian plant recruitment beyond those dams and after dam abandonment in southwestern Montana, USA. Willow cuttings from beaver herbivory are commonly deposited along point bars, adding roughness and promoting sediment accumulation. Most cuttings are found <1 km downstream of an active dam. These cuttings often sprout, aiding in willow colonization and bar stabilization. Thirty-four radiocarbon ages show that beaver cuttings have accumulated by similar processes over thousands of years, adding to floodplain carbon storage. Breached dams can initiate meanders, increasing channel and riparian habitat diversity. Beaver activity thus generates a cycle of frequent disturbance, from dam building and riparian plant browsing through dam failure and abandonment, with each phase influencing channel and floodplain evolution and riparian plant recruitment.