The two types of beaver are the North American beaver (Castor canadensis) which live in North America and Canada and the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) which live across Europe and Asia.
A beaver is a large mostly nocturnal rodent that is well adapted for life in the water. Beavers are a keystone species. A keystone species is a species that affects the environment around it so much that a new ecosystem arises. Beavers are responsible for many ponds, wetlands, and meadows.
In America the beaver is the largest rodent, they can grow up to over a meter long and weigh up to just under 30kg. The front legs of the beaver are short with large claws; the back legs are longer, and the feet of the beaver are webbed to help with mobility when swimming, the tail of the beaver is practically hairless. When the beaver enters the water, the nose and ears close, and a transparent membrane like a third eyelid covers the eyes so that it can see underwater. The beaver has glands on its body that enable it to waterproof its fur with an oily substance called castoreum. The beaver has a thick layer of fat that keeps it warm while underwater. Beavers can swim at speeds of up to five miles an hour and remain underwater for 15 minutes without having to come to the surface for air.
Beavers mate with one partner for life so long as both beavers survive. They reach sexual maturity at the age of about three years and mate between November and March depending on the warmth of the region, in warmer areas they will breed in winter and colder regions in spring. Female beavers are pregnant for around three months before they give birth to their kits. Newborn beaver kits can swim within 24 hours and will leave the lodge with its parents within a matter of days.
Beavers live in colonies; the beaver colony is comprised of one breeding male and female beaver and their children. The offspring remain with their parents for a few years before heading off to start a colony of their own. Beavers are incredibly territorial and will mark their territory with piles of mud that are covered with a scent to deter any other beavers.
Where do beavers live?
Beavers are rodents whose natural habitat is closely related to water. They usually live near lakes as well as rivers and streams. Beavers live in the near vicinity of a water source such as a river, stream, pond, lake or marsh.
What are dams made of?
The critical building material is wood. Beavers use logs and big branches as a base of the dam. Then they strengthen the construction with mud, turf, and bits of plants.
So why do beavers make dams?
Beaver dams are a natural fortification for beavers and provide them with a line of defense against their predators. Some predators of the beaver include hawks, owls, otters, coyotes, wolves, and bears.
Beaver dams provide food for the Beavers during winter. Inside of the 'walls,' the water level rise creating a small pond that provides a hideout for underwater entrances to a beavers' lodge, where they live. The higher water level also makes it easier for beavers to swim in, dive, and transport building materials safely, without worrying about predators attacking.
So is the beaver one of nature's geniuses? Master engineer? Amazing architect? An experiment recorded in the Nature Almanac, conducted by a grad student suggests maybe not. A young grad student decided to investigate why beavers build dams. He realised that beavers do not always create dams, those that live in ponds, lakes, and rivers seldom build dams. It was assumed that beavers build dams as an outlet for all their energy and that those that do not build dams just do alternative activities instead. The experimenter decided to take a number of pairs of beavers that have all built dams and release them in different environments and observe what they did.
The beavers that were released at ponds and large rivers burrowed into the bank and did not build anything else. Those beavers that were released at streams deepened them by building dams at the narrowest and shallowest parts of the stream. This gave the experimenter an idea, what if the beavers felt compelled to make dams because of the sound of water rushing over stones as the location of the dams were at the loudest parts of the stream. The sound at these locations was recorded and the recording played by speakers in locations known to be frequented by beavers.
When the experimenter went to check on his speakers the next morning they were buried deep under a pile of sticks, gravel, and mud. The piles on top of the speakers were so that the sound emitting from the speakers could no longer be heard. So why do beavers build dams? Beavers build dams because they are programmed to cover the sound of gushing water. A beautiful example of how evolution can combat complex problems with simple solutions.
What do beavers eat?
Beavers mainly eat tree bark and cambium - the soft material that grows directly under tree bark. Preferred bark types for beavers tend to be willow, maple, birch, aspen, cottonwood, beech, poplar and alder tree. The beaver is unique as it is one of the very few animals that can digest tree bark. They can do this because they have colonies of microorganisms within their intestines which can digest up to 30% of the cellulose found within tree bark, they even gain nutrition from their faecal matter when it is re-ingested. Beavers will fell large trees, but not for construction they use the bark of large trees for food or for accessing the smaller branches high up the tree.
Beavers being herbivores, beavers eat most of the plants available in both freshwater's littoral zone, growing along the coast, and hydrophytes – plants that grow underwater. During winter the ponds freeze, supplying beavers with a hefty amount of food they can live off of. The mud that is used to build beaver dams absorbs a lot of nutrients from flowing water and which gives the dirt the perfect properties for plants to grow. Their favourite foods are water lily tubers, clover, apples, and leaves. Most of these are only available during the summer, in winter they survive off of bark, saplings, and shrubs.
Beaver Dam Construction
Beavers work mainly at night; they use their paws to carry mud and stone while using their mouths to haul lumber. They have specially adapted skin flaps behind their teeth so that they can carry wood without water getting into their mouths.
Beavers tend to construct most during autumn, probably in preparation for winter. Beavers build their dams at the narrowest point of a stream. The shallowest water can be to support a beaver lodge is 0.6-0.9 meters, this is so that it cannot be blocked by ice in winter and so it can prevent predators getting into the beaver lodge. If the water is not deep beavers will build dams to raise the water level of at the entrance of the beaver lodge.
Beavers have a powerful bite and long sharp teeth that they use to cut down trees, the teeth of a beaver grow continuously throughout its life. They can cut down aspen tree 15cm in diameter in just 20 minutes. Beavers chew around the base of the tree creating an hourglass shape; they continue to chip away until the tree can no longer support its self and falls.
Beavers can carry their body weight in building material. They use the environment around them to aim them in moving materials, and they drag heavier logs across wet mud and into the water.
They first divert the water flow of the stream to make it easier for them to build the dam. A foundation is formed on the bed of the stream using large branches and logs. Once the foundation is completed, the beavers build the primary structure of the dam out of small pieces of wood, rocks, mud, and plants. Beaver dams tend to be around 2m tall, 1m thick and 4.5m long, they very much vary depending on where they are built. Where water is slow moving the dams, tend to be straight, but where water flow is rapid, they tend to be curved.
The dams are built with internal passages that allow overflows of water to drain through so that the structure of the dam is undamaged when there is excess water. Beaver dams are wider at the base and thinner at the top, and the top tilts upstream to resist the force of the current in the stream.
Dams are completed first by beavers, once it has flooded the desired area the beavers then move onto the construction of their lodge.
Beaver lodges are large dome structures, with one or two underwater entrances leading to a chamber above the water covered in woodchips to help absorb water. They have a vent built into them to circulate fresh air into the chamber. Not all beavers build lodges, and they are only built if there are no suitable places to burrow into a lake or river bank. Beaver lodges are often located in the centre of the pond.
World's largest beaver dam
World's biggest beaver dam is located within the Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada. It has a significant length of almost 850m, and it's still growing! It was discovered on Google Earth and has existed for over 30 years.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Beaver Dams
There are both positives and negatives about beaver dams impact on the environment. Building them can have specific benefits on water quality, neutralising acidic run-off, acting as sediment traps and sinks for pollutants. Dams can also moderate irregular flow of a stream. However, sometimes increased water levels can cause flooding especially after torrential downpours. Using wood as a building material can lead to deforestation of the inhabited area.
Beaver dams have a considerable impact on the environment around them. They are responsible for entire wetland habitats that support a wide range of plants and other wildlife. Beaver dams can also purify water, slow erosion and raise the water table.
When beavers desert their lodges, they become host to a wide variety of aquatic plants that spread and take over the entire pond. Shrubs and other plants soon begin to follow, and the lake becomes a meadow. When the shrubs and plants provide enough shade, tree saplings arise and take over ultimately becoming woodland. Beavers will desert their homes when food supplies dwindle as travelling too far for food exposes them to potential predators.
Beaver dams can have a negative impact on the environment around them. They slow the flow of water in streams and cause a build-up of silt and flooding in the surrounding area; this can kill off species that are initially present. They can also damage human homes, infrastructure, and crops - meaning many people see beavers as pests!
Advantages of Beaver Dams
Cancels out 'ditching effect' on water tables.
Slows down channel scouring and bank erosion.
Filters and purifies water.
Creates new wetland habitats.
Creates new meadows when dams are abandoned.
Increases biodiversity of areas, more varieties of fish, plants, birds, and amphibians
Stabilises water supplies that can be used by other wildlife and plants.
Reduces the impact of droughts.
Forms new lakes and ponds.
Disadvantages of Beaver Dams
Beavers annually cause millions of dollars worth of damage in the US alone.
They damage trees and woodland areas.
They can ruin crops and other agriculture in a surrounding area.
Can damage roads, buildings and other infrastructure.
Can cause flooding.
Trees felled by beavers can damage anything they land on.
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- Jean Thie (2007).The Longest Beaver Dam in the World. Retrieved from Eco Informatics.
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- Beaver Dam Information Site (2014).Environmental Benefits of Beavers. Retrieved from Beaver Dam Information Site.
- Jacob Silverman (2017).Why do Beavers Build Dams? Retrieved from HowStuffWorks.