One of the inspiring parts of exploring wild places is discovering an entire world that exists apart from (even if deeply influenced by) the day to day universe that makes up our busy urban lives. Just as we spend our time worrying about jobs, taxes and politics, the inhabitants of the wilderness around us spend their days focussed on food, shelter and staving off competition. In this series of blog posts we’ve been shedding some light on the creatures that make their homes in the wild areas around Toronto! So far we’ve written about Ontario’s wild cats, and the world’s biggest deer (aka moose). Today we’re writing about Canada’s national animal and the world’s second largest rodent, the beaver.
Beavers have been a key player in the European settlement of North America from the early days. When explorers arriving in North America from Europe discovered, to their chagrin, that North America was not a spice-rich region like Asia, they ultimately turned to the Beaver as the source of financial opportunity in the region. Beaver pelts were traded at exorbitant prices and, with up to 100,000 pelts being shipped to Europe each year, the American beaver was close to extinction in North America by the mid-19th century. Since then, conservation efforts and recognition have enabled the beaver population to return in force and this beloved rodent is now flourishing across Canada and the United States
Introducing the Beaver
Beavers are the largest rodent in North America and the second largest rodent in the world, after the South American capybara. There are two types of beavers, the Eurasian beaver, which is found primarily in northern Europe and central Asia, and the American Beaver, the rodent we know and love in Canada.
American beavers can grow up to 100cm long (with another 30cm in length for their tail) and weigh up to 32kg (70 lbs). They are most recognizable by their long upper incisors (20-25mm) and their large flat tail that looks like a paddle.
Beavers’ bodies are built for a semi-aquatic lifestyle. Their nostrils and ears can be closed when underwater and their eyes have a transparent membrane to protect their eyes without overly hindering their vision while swimming. Their webbed back feet make for proficient swimming, with their flat wide tail acting as a rudder. Beavers can stay underwater for as long as 15 minutes at a time.
Lodging, Family Life and Cuisine
Beavers are notorious for their proficient building skills and are one of the only animal species capable of substantially and intentionally altering their habitat. In order to create an adequate pond in which to build their homes, known as lodges, beavers will build dams as large as 10m across and 2m high, inhibiting rivers and streams and creating a stillwater pool in which to build their perfect lodge.
Beavers lodges are typically dome-shaped houses made from sticks, shrubs and moss, and sealed with mud. Lodges are built over the water, with floors artificially raised from the bottom of the pond with mud and sticks and an underwater opening serving as a secret entrance in and out of the lodge. This construction allows for beavers to sleep safely in their island fortresses, protected from land-based predators. (Click here for a great video about beaver construction).
Up to 2.5m wide and 1.5m high, each lodge will house a colony of 2-3 families of beavers, with each family consisting of a monogamous (for life) couple, and their kits (baby beavers). At the age of 3, kits become fully grown and sexually mature and must strike out on their own.
To facilitate their ambitious construction projects, and to satiate their appetite - beavers rely on leaves, roots, aquatic plants and tree bark for sustenance - an adult beaver will cut down up to 300 trees a year. Cutting down these trees with their sharp incisors also helps to keep a beaver’s teeth shaved down, as the incisors continue to grow uninterrupted throughout a beaver’s life.
Despite their extremely busy construction schedules which, in addition to the dams and lodges, also may include digging canals to bring water from large bodies of water towards their lodges, beavers are not as easy to spot as other active rodents due to their nocturnal lifestyles.
Even if you do not spot a beaver, however, you can easily spot the impact of the beaver in ponds and lakes all over Ontario by keeping your eyes open for ubiquitous beaver dams and lodges.
Although beavers are no longer an endangered species, they still face many threats. Bears, wolverine, lynx and coyotes are all known to hunt this meaty rodent, not to mention humans, including those whose properties have been flooded by unwanted beaver dams.
As you’re exploring our beautiful province this summer, keep your eyes open around freshwater ponds and small lakes and you will almost undoubtedly spot the traces of this Canadian symbol, the beaver!