What is a Beaver?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A beaver is a large brown rodent with a slightly flattened tail which spends its life in and around streams. Beavers do more to shape their environment than almost any other animal species on Earth, building characteristic dams from trees and plant matter to house themselves and store food. Many humans have contentious relationships with beavers as a result of their dam building, but they are actually a crucial species in the natural world, and many organizations work to bridge the gap between humans and beavers to create a habitat that works for all.

Beavers often help to maintain wetland environments.
Beavers often help to maintain wetland environments.

There are two species of beaver; Castor canadensis is found in North America, while Castor fiber roams Europe. Both species can exceed 40 pounds (18 kilograms) when fully grown, and have strong webbed back feet in addition to muscular flattened tails. Beavers also have notoriously sharp incisors to cut and shape trees with so that they can build dams. The dense brown insulating fur of the beaver is a highly desirable animal product, and beavers were trapped to a dangerous point before several governments stepped in to save them.

The social life of beavers is somewhat gregarious, as they form small colonies which may include three or four families. Adult beavers mate for life, raising a litter of young every year. Beaver kits stay with their parents for two years, helping to raise the next generation before branching out on their own. The beaver family works together to shape the dam, store food for the winter, and look out for each other. Many naturalists who observe beavers say that they are friendly and good natured animals and that they form true ties with one another.

When beavers fell trees for dams, they have a profound impact on their environment. The dam causes a buildup of water which creates a wetland, an important habitat for many bird, plant, and animal species. A large number of endangered animals in North America rely on wetlands for survival, and beavers by extension. The shrinking number of wetlands in the United States especially has been a cause for concern, and several programs relocate beaver pairs to natural areas so that they can help restore wetland habitats.

Beavers also help to purify water, because silt is trapped behind their dams, along with any toxins it may contain. The water downstream from a beaver dam, therefore, is filtered of dangerous toxins, providing a clean, healthy environment for fish and amphibians downstream. The impact that beavers have on the natural environment was not fully realized until it was almost too late. Luckily, the beaver is making a comeback in North America, thanks to conservation programs, and the fascinating animals will be around for future generations to enjoy.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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