Beavers are classic examples of ecosystem engineers. It is difficult to think of an animal – apart from humans – whose day-to-day activities have more impact on the landscape than beavers. Their dam building activities create wetlands that are used by numerous other species, and their selective harvesting of preferred trees affects species composition in riparian areas. And that’s just the start. Their extensive evolutionary history and once widespread distribution has made them major players in the landscape for millions of years.
Today, the beaver family (Castoridae) consists of just two extant species: Castor fiber (native to Eurasia) and Castor canadensis (native to North America). Both species were hunted by humans to the brink of extinction but, thanks to conservation efforts, enjoy stable populations despite having been eliminated from much of their historical ranges. Before the arrival of Europeans, North American beavers are estimated to have been anywhere from 60 million to 400 million strong. Extensive trapping reduced the population to less than half a million. Today, 10 million or more make their homes in rivers, streams, and wetlands across the continent.
Beavers are herbivores, and they harvest trees and shrubs to build dams and lodges. Their interactions with plants are legion, and so what better way to introduce the concept of animal-mediated seed dispersal than beavers. Plants have several strategies for moving their seeds around. Wind and gravity are popular approaches, and water is commonly used by plants both aquatic and terrestrial. Partnering with animals, however, is by far the most compelling method. This strategy is called zoochory.
Zoochory has many facets. Two major distinctions are epizoochory and endozoochory. In epizoochory, seeds become attached in some form or fashion to the outside of an animal. The animal unwittingly picks up, transports, and deposits the seeds. The fruits of such seeds are equipped with hooks, spines, barbs, or stiff hairs that help facilitate attachment to an animal’s fur, feathers, or skin. A well known example of this is the genus Arctium. Commonly known as burdock, the fruits in this genus are called burs – essentially small, round balls covered in a series of hooks. Anyone who has walked through – or has had a pet walk through – a patch of burdocks with mature seed heads knows what a nuisance these plants can be. But their strategy is effective.
Endozoochory is less passive. Seeds that are dispersed this way are usually surrounded by fleshy, nutritious fruits desired by animals. The fruits are consumed, and the undigested seeds exit out the other end of the animal with a bit of fertilizer. Certain seeds require passage through an animal’s gut in order to germinate, relying on chemicals produced during the digestion process to help break dormancy. Other seeds contain mild laxatives in their seed coats, resulting in an unscathed passage through the animal and a quick deposit. Some plants have developed mutualistic relationships with specific groups of animals regarding seed dispersal by frugivory. When these animal species disappear, the plants are left without the means to disperse their seeds, which threatens their future survival.
Beavers rely on woody vegetation to get them through the winter, but in warmer months, when herbaceous aquatic vegetation is abundant, such plants become their preferred food source. Water lilies are one of their favorite foods, and through both consumption of the water lilies and construction of wetland habitats, beavers help support water lily populations. This is how John Eastman puts it in The Book of Swamp and Bog: “Beavers relish [water lilies], sometimes storing the rhizomes. Their damming activities create water lily habitat, and they widely disperse the plants by dropping rhizome fragments hither and yon.”
The seeds of water lilies (plants in the family Nymphaceae) are generally dispersed by water. Most species (except those in the genera Nuphar and Barclaya) have a fleshy growth around their seeds called an aril that helps them float. Over time the aril becomes waterlogged and begins to disintegrate. At that point, the seed sinks to the bottom of the lake or pond where it germinates in the sediment. The seeds are also eaten by birds and aquatic animals, including beavers. The aril is digestible, but the seed is not.
In her book, Once They Were Hats, Frances Backhouse writes about the relationship between beavers and water lilies. She visits a lake where beavers had long been absent, but were later reintroduced. She noted changes in the vegetation due to beaver activity – water lilies being only one of many plant species impacted.
Every year in late summer, the beavers devoured the seed capsules [of water lilies], digested their soft outer rinds and excreted the ripe undamaged seeds into the lake. Meanwhile, as they dredged mud from the botom of the lake for their construction projects, they were unintentionally preparing the seed bed. Seeing the lilies reminded me that beavers also inadvertantly propagate willows and certain other woody plants. When beavers imbed uneaten sticks into dams or lodges or leave them lying on moist soil, the cuttings sometimes sprout roots and grow.
Other facets of zoochory include animals hoarding fruits and seeds to be eaten later and then not getting back to them, or seeds producing fleshy growths that ants love called elaiosomes, resulting in seed dispersal by ants. Animals and plants are constantly interacting in so many ways. Zoochory is just one way plants use animals and animals use plants, passively or otherwise. These relationships have a long history, and each one of them is worth exploring and celebrating.