Evolution: the presence of life evolves the Earth (Introduction)

by David Turell @, Tuesday, December 04, 2018, 19:04 (166 days ago) @ David Turell

The two evolutionary processes of a changing Earth and a changing life markedly influence each other as the two processes are totally intertwined, as shown in this article about beavers in Alaska:


"Much like humans, beavers can have an oversized effect on the landscape (SN: 8/4/18, p. 28). People who live near beaver habitat complain of downed trees and flooded land. But in areas populated mostly by critters, the effects can be positive. Beaver dams broaden and deepen small streams, forming new ponds and warming up local waters. Those beaver-built enhancements create or expand habitats hospitable to many other species — one of the main reasons that researchers refer to beavers as ecosystem engineers.


"Beavers’ tireless toils — to erect lodges that provide a measure of security against land-based predators and to build a larder of limbs, bark and other vegetation to tide them over until spring thaw — benefit the wildlife community.

"Beavers may be infiltrating the region for the first time in recent history as climate change makes conditions more hospitable, says Ken Tape, an ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.


"Beavers’ biggest effects on Arctic ecosystems may come from the added biodiversity within the ponds they create, says James Roth, an ecologist at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. These “oases on the tundra” will not only provide permanent habitat for fish and amphibians, they’ll serve as seasonal stopover spots for migratory waterfowl. Physical changes to the environment could be just as dramatic, thawing permafrost decades faster than climate change alone would.


:Beavers have infiltrated three watersheds in northwestern Alaska in the last couple of decades. Together these drainages cover more than 18,000 square kilometers — an area larger than Connecticut.

"The researchers then used newer, high-resolution satellite images to verify the presence of beaver ponds. Available aerial photographs taken before 1999 didn’t pick up any signs of beaver activity in the area, Tape says. Kirk notes that beavers were present in the Lower Noatak River watershed before 1999, but in vastly smaller numbers than they are today.

"Based on the images at hand, the researchers found 56 new complexes of beaver ponds in the area over the 16-year study period. On average, beavers expanded their range about 8 kilometers per year, Tape and colleagues reported in the October Global Change Biology.

“This is remarkable, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise,” Tape says. “Beavers are engineers that work every day, all summer long.”


"The beavers are not only persisting on the tundra, they’re thriving. The moderately sized streams and flat terrain provide ideal habitat. And once they gain a foothold, these industrious creatures set about making improvements that are probably an overall plus for myriad other species, Tape says.

"For instance, frigid conditions in the region cause shallow streams to freeze solid in winter. But when a beaver builds a dam, the water that gathers upstream of the structure becomes deep enough to remain liquid below a sheet of ice that provides insulation from the chilly winter air.

"That persistent liquid lets the beavers move about under the ice even in the depths of winter. The water gives them a place to stockpile food, too, Tape notes. That constant supply of liquid water also provides year-round habitat for fish, amphibians and even some insects in their larval stages. None of these species are part of the beaver’s diet, but they could serve as food for other creatures. “All that diversity would add whole new layers to food webs,” Roth says.


"Field studies at lower latitudes hint that beavers will probably bring about other ecological changes, too, Tape says, which might shift over time. For example, moose and snowshoe hares eat the same willow shrubs that beavers consume and build their dams with. And ptarmigan, a crow-sized bird in the grouse family, rely on those shrubs for cover, especially during winter. So immediately after beavers move into an area and start clearing that brush, populations of those species may decline.

"But the long-term benefits will probably outweigh the short-term impacts on those species, says Matthew Mumma, an ecologist at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, Canada. Permafrost that thaws along the fringe of a beaver pond will probably boost numbers of the shrubs that these species depend on, Tape and colleagues suggest. So in the long run, the overall numbers of moose, hares and ptarmigan may rise.


"The wolves with diets heavier in beaver had, on average, fewer intestinal parasites called cestodes. (Tapeworms are the best-known members of that group.)

"Beaver-eating wolves are much less likely to excrete parasites into the environment where they could be picked up by ungulates, such as moose and caribou. Wolves don’t seem to be detrimentally affected by such parasites. But ungulates that become infected — especially older animals — may have reduced lung capacity, making escape from predators more difficult."

Comment: An ecological article much too long to summarize. It shows how life influences the ecology and the necessary econiches, while changing the local Earth. It answers dhw's attempt to downplay econiches.

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