Beavers are often called, “Animals of mass destruction." Can that be? They are cute and furry, why all the fuss? North Americans have had a love-hate relationship with beavers for centuries. Humans love the beaver’s fur, yet they hate the destruction beavers do to the environment. Although today, that sentiment is changing. Let’s look at who the beavers are and why there has been a war with who they are and what they do to the landscape and the economy.
Beavers (Castor canadensis) are some of the largest rodents and they can grow to be about 40-inches long (102 cm) and can weigh up to 70 pounds (32 kg.). Because they are rodents, they have sharp front teeth, hair or fur, and feed their babies milk.
Water is their preferred environment and beavers can stay underwater for 15 minutes with over-sized lungs before they have to surface for a breath. The North American beaver lives in the United States and Canada and the Eurasian beaver, all over Europe and Asia. Since they’ve been overhunted, there are smaller numbers in France, Germany, Poland, Scandinavia and Russia.
Beavers communicate with each other by using a groan and when danger is sensed, they slap the water with their large flat, hairless tail (it looks like a black paddle with scales on it) and, because they are semiaquatic, their tail also acts as a rudder in water and a balance mechanism on land. The tail also stores fat for the leaner times of the year.
A beaver’s fur is waterproof and they can swim up to five miles (8 km) per hour and are aided by two back paws, which are webbed. Newborn kits can swim a day after they are born.
In their rear feet is a preening toe that carries a double toenail, which acts as a comb to prevent their fine, soft, double-layer of fur from matting. This inherent claw also clears out things that may attach to their coats such as burrs, parasites and bits of vegetation.
Beaver whiskers are another aid since their eyesight is poor; like a dog that uses whiskers to find objects spatially, a beaver’s whisker bristles also help them navigate in dark water and through narrow pathways. Speaking of their eyes, they are equipped with a transparent membrane—a nictitating membrane—that covers the eyeball for underwater work. On the other hand, a beaver’s hearing is keen and inside its small ears are valves that close when they are submerged. It is believed they may hear better underwater as a large portion of their brain is devoted to auditory ability.
Their extraordinary teeth are strong, including two upper and two lower called incisors. The teeth are bright orange because of the iron in the wood they eat such as cottonwood, willow, maple, aspen and others. These long, curved teeth never stop growing which prompts them to gnaw wood and tear open food daily. Even underwater, beavers can gnaw on wood because their front teeth stick out past their lips, so they can still close their mouth and keep water out. Their strong jaw muscles enable them to work like “busy beavers" and they can manipulate the land only second to man, changing bark and trees into dams.
The American Indians say their word for ‘beaver-like’ also means affable, and they know them as the sacred center of the land—providing homes for fish, turtles, frogs, birds and ducks. Although to be honest, beavers do kill off trees and drive other animals to drier land.
Beavers choice of a work area is a shallow valley, turning a flooded area into a wetland. While almost half of endangered and threatened species in North American rely on wetlands, the beaver has created a “cradle of live" for biodiversity—generally this is an area that invites other species to visit. And because their work keeps water on land longer, there is less erosion and a higher water table. In addition, the beaver dam structure acts as a filter, helping to purify the water. Up to 3.26 million gallons of water storage is created by a typical beaver!
Underneath the dammed areas the beavers build lodges where they can live in colonies or groups (six to twelve). The lodges are cone-shaped and have several underwater entrances, keeping them safe from wolves, fox, otters, bears and some birds—their predators.
Native American Hunters
The fur trade in early America, New Amsterdam, was so lucrative—Manhattan NY now, (with a beaver pond in what is currently Times Square)—that beavers are found etched on the city seal. The beaver was so integral to the burgeoning economy that one Netherlands-bound ship in 1626, the Arms of Amsterdam, had 7,246 Beaver skins on its bill of lading—and the pelts could actually be used as currency.
Back in the day before the Europeans set foot on America, beavers were important to the native Indian tribes, such as the Algonquins. The industrious mammals helped to shape the land, provided fur for clothing, and the tribes only killed what they needed for survival. In 1599 the French began building trading posts and settlements along the St. Lawrence River. In 1621 the Dutch West India Company was founded and the Hudson’s Bay Company sprung up in 1670. Once the Dutch, French and English started paying the natives for hides, the beaver numbers were reduced considerably. Then in 1808, John Jacob Astor founded the American Fur Company, which made him one of the first multi-millionaires. The demand for fur was huge. So many beavers were killed they were almost extinct. According to History.net, “The beaver became a factor of empire, and battles were fought and treaties delayed over who was to control access to prime trapping areas. The future of North America depended on the flashing paddle and the beaver trap as much as it did on muskets and bayonets. …By 1756, the fur trade was so well established that it survived the upheaval of the French and Indian War with little alteration. “
Castoreum is a secretion beavers use to mark their territories. Since it smells like vanilla—with a hint of musk and fruit—it was used in both food and perfume. The essence has been described by fragrance aficionados or specialists, such as a perfumer—as Russian leather or birch tar, tongue-and-cheek for the beaver’s favorite food, of course. The scent is taken from the beaver’s castor sac, near the pelvis area and the base of the tail. Taken from a live animal, the fluid is milked and dried to a solid. In a dead beaver, the entire gland is removed and preserved by smoking. In Roman times castoreum was a medicine for inhaling and imbibing. And the best furs or pelts were castor gras pelts, smelling musky and trapped in the winter and worn throughout the season. By the end of the 19th century, the demand for pelts and castoreum was so great that North American beavers were on the edge of extinction.
Today states regulate the hunting, trapping and selling of beaver fur—it is still legal, but highly regulated. The tug and pull between beaver habitat and maintaining the environment is an ongoing process that biologists and folks at the Nature Conservancy deal with on a continual basis. Beavers well-being and environmental design concerns remain a challenge.
Graubart, Norman D. Beavers in American History. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2015. Book.
Riggs, Kate. Amazing Animals: Beavers. Mankato, Minnesota: Creative Education and Creative Paperbacks, 2015. Book.
Roza, Greg. Animals of Mass Destruction: Beavers. New York: Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2015. Book.
Rustad, Martha E. H. Beavers and Their Lodges. Mankato, Minnesota: Capstone Press, 2005. Book.
Business Insider: “Vanilla-Scented Beaver Butt Secretions Are Used In Food And Perfume."
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com