The Secret Life of Beavers

Thursday, November 25, 2021
Beavers are fascinating animals. They are one of Canada's national symbol animals and even appeared on the first postage stamp back in 1849. They have continued to be a symbol for many associations and organizations. They're even on our nickels!  Perhaps even more intriguing, is how little many of us know about them and their life history traits. 

Did you know that Beavers are considered rodents? Yep! Not only that, they are the largest rodent we have here in North America. Even further, they are considered semi-aquatic rodents.. that are also nocturnal and build dams and lodges. There is a lot to learn about this incredible species. 

North American Beaver. Photo by Shayna Hartley. 

Let's run through some of the traits that make beavers unique: 

1) They slap their tail on water to indicate danger: a lot of species have some sort of danger signal, that they use to let others know to shelter from a predator or another threat. However, the way that beavers do this is quite unique considering their body anatomy: they use their large paddle like tail to slap the water, creating a loud sound and large splash. This indicates to others to shelter in deeper water. If you've ever been canoeing and happened upon a beaver - you are more than familiar with the tail slap! Sometimes it's all you see before they disappear. This same tail serves as a fat storage area in the winter, a surface for releasing heat during hot weather and a rudder for swimming. 

2) They EAT wood: Beavers don't just use their teeth to cut down trees, they actually eat the wood. They are considered herbivores and also eat a variety of aquatic plants and leaves. During November they become quite active in the evenings, working hard to cut down and store branches for food throughout the winter. They have quite the system worked out: beavers will store cached branches in the muddy floor beneath their lodges, where the cold water helps to keep the branches fresh. Ah- nothing like a fresh branch! 

Beaver carrying branches back to it's lodge to cache. Photo by Christine Andrews /

Beaver picking out branches for caching. Photo by Christine Andrews /

3) They build lodges AND dams: That's right. beavers don't live in dams. They build dams to modify or create habitat and lodges as their living quarters. Both are quite incredible feats. A beaver's lodge can only be entered from the water, and typically is slightly off from shore forming what looks like an island. Not only can they enter it from the water, there are usually multiple entrances. The living quarters are actually above the water line, within the shelter. They are thoughtful contractors: floors complete with wood shavings, insulated walls and typically a small ventilation hole at the top. Dams are specifically constructed to divert water and are made to be water tight, bound together with mud and rocks. These dams create beaver ponds that serve as habitat for other aquatic species. 

4) They have large lungs that allow them to stay under water: Paired with slower circulation and a larger liver for storing oxidized blood, allowing this species to stay underwater longer,  up to 15 minutes at a time. They are incredibly well adapted to their environment and lifestyle. 

5) They have underwater vision: yet another beaver superpower. They have a clear eyelid that basically acts as a goggle lens, allowing them to see underwater while they swim and enhancing their capability to be active underwater. 

This doesn't even represent an exhaustive list of everything that makes beavers so fantastic. Their industrious nature is something to be admired. Consider this an expose of the secret life of beavers. Because so much of their lives happens below water or inside their lodge, there is much more to them than that which is often observed. 

At the beginning of the 20th century they were endangered because they were hunted for their fur. After a prohibitive ban on beaver trapping in the 1930’s, their populations were able to recover. Many other species rely on the habitat that beavers create, making them a keystone species: they help to create ecosystems that would otherwise not exist and in doing so support many other species. Beavers have often been persecuted for their pelts and viewed as pests for modifying habitats that impact human infrastructure. I hope this has shown you all that makes beavers so wonderful and why they are worth protecting.

I hope you now agree that: 

Dam, beavers are fascinating! 



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