Beaver-willow (Castor-Salix) communities are a unique and vital component of healthy wetlands throughout the Holarctic region. Beaver selectively forage willow to provide fresh food, stored winter food, and construction material. The effects of this complex foraging behavior on the structure and function of willow communities is poorly understood. Simulation modeling may help ecologists understand these complex interactions. In this study, a modified version of the SAVANNA ecosystem model was developed to better understand how beaver foraging affects the structure and function of a willow community in a simulated riparian ecosystem in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado (RMNP). The model represents willow in terms of plant and stem dynamics and beaver foraging in terms of the quantity and quality of stems cut to meet the energetic and life history requirements of beaver. Given a site where all stems were equally available, the model suggested a simulated beaver family of 2 adults, 2 yearlings, and 2 kits required a minimum of 4 ha of willow (containing about10 stems m-2) to persist in a steady-state condition. Beaver created a willow community where the annual net primary productivity (ANPP) was 2 times higher and plant architecture was more diverse than the willow community without beaver. Beaver foraging created a plant architecture dominated by medium size willow plants, which likely explains how beaver can increase ANPP. Long-term simulations suggested that woody biomass stabilized at similar values even though availability differed greatly at initial condition. Simulations also suggested that willow ANPP increased across a range of beaver densities until beaver became food limited. Thus, selective foraging by beaver increased productivity, decreased biomass, and increased structural heterogeneity in a simulated willow community.
Additional publication details
Simulation modeling to understand how selective foraging by beaver can drive the structure and function of a willow community