Billions of dollars are being spent in the United States to restore rivers to a desired, yet often unknown, reference condition. In lieu of a known reference, practitioners typically assume the paradigm of a connected watercourse. Geological and ecological processes, however, create patchy and discontinuous fluvial systems. One of these processes, dam building by North American beavers (Castor canadensis), generated discontinuities throughout precolonial river systems of northern North America. Under modern conditions, beaver dams create dynamic sequences of ponds and wet meadows among free-flowing segments. One beaver impoundment alone can exceed 1000 meters along the river, flood the valley laterally, and fundamentally alter biogeochemical cycles and ecological structures. In this article, we use hierarchical patch dynamics to investigate beaver-mediated discontinuity across spatial and temporal scales. We then use this conceptual model to generate testable hypotheses addressing channel geomorphology, natural flow regime, water quality, and biota, given the importance of these factors in river restoration.
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