Photo by Bob Gress
"Our bite is the source of our bark."
as a beaver", goes the old saying, and that is especially true come autumn.
Beaver modify their environment for their own purposes more than any other animal except
man. Under their direction, a small stream flowing through a wooded valley will
become a pond edged with shrubby second-growth forest. Eventually, if the beavers
live there long enough, the pond will fill in with detritus and soil, becoming a fertile
meadow. All this activity is a direct consequence of the ecological niche that
|Beaver are strict herbivores who do not hibernate. They eat the inner bark of
trees during winter. During the growing season, they eat a variety of vegetation
including various aquatic plants and the leaves and small twigs of many different kinds of
trees. While they may ingest a small amount of wood as they eat, they cannot digest
it readily and it is not what they are after. ||
Photo by Jim Mason
|Beaver use deep water as a defense against predators. They construct dams on small
streams to create the deep water they need. Their dams are located and constructed
with great engineering skill. Dams are typically made with the leftovers from their
dinner (gnawed branches) and mud dredged up from the bottom of the pond or stream.
Rocks, mussel shells and other objects may also become part of the dam.|
|Because they are so thoroughly adapted to an aquatic lifestyle, they do not have the
ability to climb trees. In order to get the food that is out of their reach, they
chew around the base of the tree until it falls. They do not know which way the tree
will drop and are sometimes injured or killed by larger trees. |
|Beaver are the biggest rodents in North America. Adults typically weigh between 14
and 27 kg (31 - 60 lb.) One captured in Kansas weighed 44 kg (97 lb.)!! In all
the world, the only larger rodent is the South American Capybara. |
|The front teeth (incisors) of a beaver, or any other rodent, grow throughout the life of
the animal. The front surface of the incisors is made of a very hard enamel that is
dull orange in color. Since the back part of the tooth is not as hard, it wears off
first, resulting in a chisel-like shape which, for a beaver, is perfect for the tasks of
felling trees and stripping their bark. A beaver can drop a 5 cm. (2") tree in
just a few minutes. |
|A beaver's front feet have 5 fingers and are very skilled at manipulating objects.
They can take a twig no bigger than a pencil and twirl it around like corn on the cob as
they nibble off the bark. |
The presence of these large rodents becomes very noticeable late in the season as they
prepare for winter. Since the surface of the body of water they live in may
freeze solid, making it difficult to get to trees, beaver will chew down extra ones for an
underwater food cache located near the den or lodge. They also must ensure their
dams and lodges are ready for winter, which requires them to drop even more trees.
All this furry forestry makes beavers in the neighborhood quite obvious in the fall.
Beaver were originally found throughout the northern hemisphere. The popularity
of felt hats and clothing made from the fur and hides of beaver, along with the lack of
any regulation of trapping, led to their extirpation from a large portion of their
range. They became extinct in England in the 13th century. They became
economically extinct - that is, so scarce as to make them not worth pursuing - in Europe
just as the European colonists found abundant populations of beaver in North
America. The trappers began ruthlessly exploiting this new source, and as the beaver
populations close to the coast were depleted, the trappers began moving inland. In
fact, it was the pursuit of new populations of beaver for the fur trade that was the main
motive for the exploration of the interior of the continent. Beaver might have been
driven to extinction in North America if fashions had not changed with the increasing
popularity of silk (instead of felt) hats starting around 1840.
Beaver are well-adapted for their life in the water.
|Their cheeks close behind their incisors so they can grasp and tow branches underwater. |
|Their ear canals and nasal openings can be closed to keep water out. |
|They have an inner transparent eyelid to allow underwater vision. |
|Their hind feet are large and have webbed toes for swimming. |
|They can hold their breath for up to 15 minutes. |
|The underfur is very dense and traps a layer of air next to the skin for insulation.
The fur is further waterproofed by rubbing an oil produced by the castor gland into
it. Beaver spend a lot of time grooming their fur when out of the water so as to
maintain its protective ability. They have a special "comb claw" on the
second toe of each hind foot that is used as a curry comb during grooming. |
The wide, flat, leathery tail of the beaver is one of its most characteristic
|It serves as a place to store fat. |
|It works as a rudder and also helps the hind feet push the animal forward when swimming.
|It is a portable chair. They will either lean back against it when standing on
their back legs or they will fold it around beneath them when sitting and grooming
|When they sense danger, they will slap the surface of the water with it to warn other
|It is not a tool for either transporting or applying
mud to the dam or lodge. They do that with their front legs and hands. |
|It is not used as a club to fight off enemies. They defend
themselves mainly by biting and scratching. |
Beavers are highly social animals.
|They live in family groups consisting of the parents, young of the year and two-year old
offspring. Litter size averages 3, so a family of 8 beavers would not be uncommon. |
|The family will mark its territory with scent mounds made of mud, feces and castoreum (an aromatic secretion produced by the castor gland).
These serve to inform their neighbors where the "property lines" are. |
|Social grooming, play and vocal communication help to maintain the
family bonds. What does a beaver sound like? Click on the microphone to hear
the voice of a surprised beaver who discovers someone in his den! (421K wav file)|
This is the voice of Wasa, a beaver who formerly lived at the Kansas
With their human-like family life and highly developed engineering skills, beavers have
always fascinated people. If you look carefully along the watercourses in your area,
you may find evidence of these industrious rodents, and if you are very lucky, you may spy
one swimming by on one of its many daily errands.
More information on Beavers may be found in the Mammal's Den!
Visit Beaver Pictures and Facts
for more information, including some large format pictures suitable for use as desktop
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- This page was spun
by Jim Mason -
|Questions or comments? Send Email to Jim Mason
Or write us at:
Great Plains Nature Center
6232 E. 29th Street North
Wichita, KS 67220-2200