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Beaver dams maintain native fish biodiversity via altered habitat heterogeneity in a coastal stream network: Evaluating gear, quantifying fish assemblages, and testing ecological hypotheses

Joseph M Smith, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Abstract

Understanding the relationship between heterogeneity, biodiversity and ecosystem function is an active focus of ecological research that has direct applications to the formulation of sustainable, science-based, watershed conservation plans. Here, I applied ecological theory on heterogeneity to the expansion of North American beaver to test hypotheses about physical habitat and fish biodiversity at a riverscape scale. To test these hypotheses (Chapter 4), I first addressed two methodological issues (Chapter 2, 3). By evaluating three types of gear at three levels of effort in a randomized block design over 4 replicate days, I show that 10 minnow traps, 2 hoop nets and 20 m of electrofishing captured most fish species within a 30-m sampling area (Chapter 2). Multiple statistical measures provided similar information, therefore I used general indices (richness, diversity), ecological guilds (flow based), and select multivariate analyses (DCA) to summarize fish communities (Chapter 3). I used these methodological insights to test ecological hypotheses by collecting habitat and fish data at all beaver dams (n = 15) and select control sites (n = 9) in Fish Brook, a coastal watershed in northeastern Massachusetts. From these data, I gained six basic and applied insights. First, beaver dams were distributed throughout the stream network. Second, at a local scale, beaver dams created more habitat heterogeneity than control sites. Specifically, beaver dams created four types of habitat alterations based on upstream-downstream differences in stream width, depth, velocity, and substrate. Third, richness and diversity of fish species around beaver dams were linked to habitat heterogeneity. Fourth, the mechanisms by which beaver dams altered fish biodiversity were mediated through habitat changes at the beaver dam patch boundary. Upstream of the dam macrohabitat guilds occupied the lentic areas, while below dams, fluvial fish guilds used shallow, faster water. Fifth, fluvial species responded the most dramatically to these habitat changes. Finally, in a system depauperate of lotic habitat, fluvial habitats created below beaver dams provided an important refuge for native stream fish. These source areas can increase resiliency and maintaining them may be useful for sustainable watershed conservation plans in these types of systems.^

Subject Area

Ecology|Aquatic sciences

Recommended Citation

Smith, Joseph M, "Beaver dams maintain native fish biodiversity via altered habitat heterogeneity in a coastal stream network: Evaluating gear, quantifying fish assemblages, and testing ecological hypotheses" (2012). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3498372.
http://scholarworks.umass.edu/dissertations/AAI3498372

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