By Megan Benage
I recently took a long winter break through January as I recovered from surgery. I wish I could share that I spent that time brushing up on my ecological knowledge and am now ready to share lots of cool and interesting facts about the natural world with all of you. Unfortunately, if I’m being honest, I spent most of that time watching British murder shows and below deck yachting.
While this may not have been the most soul fulfilling or brain nurturing way to spend my time, it certainly was a much needed rest. Never fear, I did find myself wondering during that time about the natural world (mostly on commercial breaks but it still counts). One of the things that I kept thinking about were beavers. Yes, beavers—nature’s engineer!
Beavers are often thought of as a pesky critter because of their penchant to build dams and back up streams. But I’ve always been fascinated at how we respond to them. After all, other than humans they are one of the only animals that can modify its environment to suit its unique needs. The beaver is the largest rodent in North America, typically weighing 40-50 pounds. They have a thick, wooly brown coat and a paddle-like tail. They have evolved to a semi aquatic life and have some pretty amazing adaptations to aid their survival in this environment!
- Nose and ear valves that shut once the beaver is underwater
- Nictitating membranes covering their eyes that act like natural goggles protecting their eyes from irritation
- Lips that close behind their front teeth so they can carry a branch while swimming
This last one I had to fact check multiple times because I was struggling to imagine how this works. But it makes sense once you stare at a picture of a beaver. Their lower lips close behind their front incisors to close off the mouth. This gives them their famous Bucky the beaver look and serves as a useful adaptation! Fashion and function, people.
One of the most surprising things about beavers is that they are a keystone species, meaning a lot of other species rely on them for survival. Without the beaver, the ecosystem would drastically change. The dams beavers make create large open pools and wetlands that are home to ducks, geese, frogs, fish, and insects. These ponds serve as a natural carbon sink! Beavers also foster the growth of a complex plant community that provides habitat for moose, other large mammals, and songbirds.
Beaver lodges are well insulated and beavers are pretty good at sharing. Frogs, muskrats, and some small mammals take shelter in beaver lodges during the frigid winter as a way to survive. A few winters back we watched a nature documentary about beavers and I was astonished when they showed the inside of the lodge and there resting peacefully amongst the beaver family was a frog emerging from the water. I had no idea how many other animals took advantage of the beaver’s hard work: building a dam, making a lodge, and storing food all summer for the long winter ahead.
Beavers are a prime example of how connected everything is in nature. Without them, the world really doesn’t make a dam bit of sense (pun intended).
If you want to learn more, I highly recommend the PBS show, Leave it to Beavers, and a few beaver themed articles below.