Beavers have a reputation for using their razor-sharp teeth to gnaw at nearby trees and build wooden dams across naturally-occurring waterways. But according to a study published in the journal Earth Surface Processes and Landforms this week by researchers from the University of Exeter, these dams do so much more than merely provide shelter for the animals.
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As it would seem, beaver dams can also remove pollution from rivers and streams by acting as natural barricades. They interrupt water flow and suspend many of the harmful chemicals and sediments, blocking them from moving downstream.
The researchers reached their astonishing conclusion after performing a multi-year experiment with a family of captive-bred beavers inside of a 2.5-hectare enclosure. The animals then built 13 different dams in a sequence that slowed the progression of more than 100 tons of harmful pollutants including nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment, among other things.
These pollutants instigate problems for surrounding wildlife, trigger soil loss in farms, and can make naturally-occurring water unsafe to drink. But the water quality improved drastically once the beavers set up their dams and the water flowed through them.
"It is of serious concern that we observe such high rates of soil loss from agricultural land, which are well in excess of soil formation rates," said Prof. Richard Brazier from the University of Exeter.
"However, we are heartened to discover that beaver dams can go a long way to mitigate this soil loss and also trap pollutants which lead to the degradation of our water bodies. Were beaver dams to be commonplace in the landscape we would no doubt see these effects delivering multiple benefits across whole ecosystems, as they do elsewhere around the world."
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The findings imply that specially-planted beaver populations could one day serve as a natural defense against common issues such as soil erosion and water pollution. Taking advantage of these benefits has implications for improving the sustainability of usable land and water on Earth.
It should be interesting to see if future tests align with these findings and whether scientists will someday utilize beavers for the common good.
Source: The Telegraph