The presence of in-channel beaver impoundments in Rocky Mountain streams:implications for downstream food webs
North American beavers (Castor canadensis) build dams in stream channels, thus creating impoundments that flood surrounding riparian areas. Due to the widely circulating global pool of mercury in the atmosphere, mercury is deposited onto the landscape both near and far from point sources, including areas occupied by beavers. The organic form of mercury, methylmercury, is a potent neurotoxin with potential to cause harm to both humans and wildlife due to its ability to biomagnify up food chains. Recently flooded areas, such as those resulting from beaver impoundments, create ideal environments for the methylation of mercury. These impoundments can release methylmercury to downstream food webs where there is potential for it to be transferred to higher trophic level organisms. Beaver impoundments can also boost productivity in aquatic systems, so increases in mercury may be accompanied by an increase in nutrients and algal and invertebrate biomass. The findings here describe increased concentrations of methylmercury in water, algae, and invertebrates downstream from in-channel beaver dams in the southern Canadian Rockies. There was, however, no significant increase in nutrients or algal and invertebrate biomass downstream from impoundments. An examination of trophic transfer of mercury in these stream systems reveals that uptake is enhanced at low concentrations. The uptake pathway from water to algae is especially important but is attenuated in higher trophic levels due to a small relative difference in trophic level between predators and prey. The overall rate of trophic transfer in these systems falls within the low end of the typical range, and low baseline concentrations mean that methylmercury is not biomagnifying to dangerous levels in these low-productivity mountain systems. Beavers can provide important ecosystem services such as improving landscape heterogeneity, creation of new habitat for invertebrates and fish and improved angling opportunities, but they also enhance mercury export. Therefore, in systems that are mercury-sensitive such as those with low pH or long-lived, slow-growing predatory fish species, beaver influence should be considered as an important source of methylmercury.
DegreeMaster of Science (M.Sc.)
Copyright DateSeptember 2014
beaver impoundments, mercury, food webs