A comparison of impacts from silviculture practices and North American beaver invasion on stream benthic macroinvertebrate community structure and function in Nothofagus forests of Tierra del Fuego.
The sub-Antarctic biome of South America is the world's southernmost forested ecosystem and one of the last remaining wilderness areas on the planet. Nonetheless, the region confronts various anthropogenic environmental impacts, such as the invasive North American beaver (Castor canadensis) and timber harvesting, particularly in stands of Nothofagus pumilio. Both of these disturbances can affect terrestrial and aquatic systems. To understand the influence and relative importance of these disturbances on sub-Antarctic watersheds, we characterized in-stream and riparian habitat conditions (pH, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, temperature, stream size, distance to riparian forest, bank slope, substrate heterogeneity, benthic organic matter) and benthic macroinvertebrate community structure (density, richness, diversity, evenness) and function (biomass, functional feeding group percent) in 19 streams on Tierra del Fuego Island. To explain the effects of beaver invasion and timber harvesting, we compared these physical and biotic variables among four habitat types: (a) beaver meadows, (b) shelterwood cut harvested areas without forested riparian zones, (c) variable retention harvested areas with riparian buffers, and (d) unmanaged old-growth primary forests. Most habitat variables were similar at all sites, except for dissolved oxygen (significantly higher in streams from old-growth primary forests). Benthic communities in beaver meadows had significantly lower diversity, compared to streams of unmanaged old-growth primary forests, and managed sites presented intermediate values between the two. Functionally, the benthic community in beaver meadows displayed a reduction of all functional feeding groups except collector-gatherers; again variable retention harvested areas with riparian buffers were similar to unmanaged old-growth primary forest streams, while shelterwood cut harvested areas occupied an intermediate position. These results indicated that current forestry practices that include both variable retention and legally mandated riparian forested buffers may be effective in mitigating impacts on stream benthic communities. Finally, these data demonstrated that C. canadensis invasion was a relatively larger impact on these streams than well-managed forestry practices.