Listen to a part of a lecture in an ecology class.
So, continuing our discussion of ecological systems, whole systems…the main thing to keep in mind here is the interrelationships.
The species in the system and even the landscape itself, they are interdependent.
Let's take what you've read for this weekend and see if we can apply this interdependence idea. Mike?
Well, um... how about beavers, ecosystems with beavers in waterways.
Good, good, go on.
Like—[as if launching into a detailed explanation] well, you can see how it's so important, ‘cause if you go back before European settled in North America, like before the 1600s, back when Native Americans were the only people living here—well, back then there were a lot of beavers, but later on, after Europeans...
[cutting him off] OK, wait, I see where you are heading with this, but before we go into how European settlement affected the ecosystem, tell me this--what kind of environment do beavers live in?
Think about what it was like before the Europeans settlers came, [under breath a bit] we'll come back to where you were headed...
OK, well, beavers live near streams and rivers… And they block up the streams and rivers with like logs and sticks and mud, you know, they build dams, that really slow down the flow of the stream.
So then the water backs up, and creates like a pond that floods the nearby land.
And that creates wetlands. OK, tell me more.
Well with wetlands, it's like there is more standing water, more still water around, and that water is a lot cleaner than swiftly flowing water, because the dirt and settlement and stuff has the chance to sink to the bottom.
More important for our discussion, wetland areas support a lot more varieties of life than swiftly flowing water.
For example, there are more varieties of fish or insects, lots of frog species, and then species that rely on those species start to live near the wetlands too.
Yes. [lightbulb] Like birds and mammals that eat the fish and insects, and you can get trees and plants that begin to grow near the standing water, that can't grow near the running water. [trail off at end, so it’s clear student doesn’t know how to continue]
Oh, and there's something about wetland and groundwater too...
Wetlands have a big effect on groundwater—the amount of water below the surface of the land.
Think of wetlands as, umm, like a giant sponge, the earth soaks up a lot of this water that's continually flooding the surface, which increases the amount of water below.
So where is there a wetland, you get a lot of groundwater, and groundwater happens to be a big source of our own drinking water today.
Alright... so, back to the beavers, what if the beavers weren't there?
You’d just have a regular running stream, ’cause there is no dam. So the ecosystem would be completely different—there would be fewer wetlands.
Exactly, so, now let's go back to where you were headed before, Mike.
You mentioned the change that occurred after Europeans came to North America.
Yeah—well, there used to be beavers all over the place, something like 200 million beavers, just in the continental United States.
But when Europeans came, they started hunting the beavers for their fur…‘cause beaver fur, it’s really warm—and it was really popular for making hats in Europe.
So the beavers were hunted a lot, overhunted—they were almost extinct by the 1800s. So…that meant fewer wetlands—less standing water.
And what does that mean for the ecosystem? Kate?
Well if there is less standing water, then the ecosystem can't support as many species, because a lot of insects and fish and frogs can't live in running water, and then the birds and animals that eat them lose their foods supply.
[as if nodding along] Precisely, [making a key point] so the beaver in this ecosystem is what we call a keystone species.
The term “keystone” kind of explains itself: in architecture, a keystone in an archway or doorway is the stone that holds the whole thing together, and keeps it from collapsing.
Well, that's what a keystone species does in an ecosystem—it’s the crucial species that keeps the system going.
Now, beaver populations are on the rise again, but there is something to think about.
Consider humans as part of these ecosystems, you've probably heard about water shortages or restrictions on how much water you can use, especially in the summer time, in recent years.
And remember what I said about groundwater.
Imagine if we still have all those beavers around, all those wetlands, what would our water supply be like then?