Why Do Beavers Build Dams?

One of the biggest rodents still alive is the beaver. They have flat, scale-covered tails, webbed feet, and thick hair. They cut down trees to build homes and dams using their strong jaws and teeth, frequently altering their surroundings in ways that few other creatures can. The expressions “busy as a beaver” and “eager beaver” actually refer to someone who is diligent and hardworking.

What is a beaver dam?

A dam constructed by a beaver out of wood and mud is known as a beaver dam. A dam is a structure that restricts or slows down a river or stream’s water flow. Behind a dam, a lake or pond is formed.

Why do beavers make dams?

Biologists consider beavers ecosystem engineers because they can transform their habitats. Beavers utilize their powerful front teeth to slice trees and branches for dams. Mud, boulders, and grass are also used.

To make a pond in which to construct a “beaver lodge,” beavers construct dams across waterways. These ponds offer refuge from wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions, among other predators.

Beavers don’t live in the dam. Beavers construct dams to provide a secure pond in which to erect their beaver lodge.┬áBeaver lodges are made of twigs, branches, rocks, and mud and have underwater entrances (beavers are very good swimmers). Inside their lodge, beavers can sleep, rear their young, stay warm, and hide from scavengers.

Beavers build dams for protection. Winter freezes beaver ponds. Beavers are prey for numerous predators, thus they don’t leave their homes to eat. They store food in the pond’s bottom. They bury downed twigs in pond muck until they’re ready to eat. When hungry, they swim out of their underwater entrance to collect twigs.

Herbivorous beavers only eat plants. They eat young sapling branches, especially aspen and willow bark.

How do beavers build dams?

Researchers examining this intriguing behavioral feature in these animals frequently take pictures of beavers constructing dams. In order to avoid the underwater entrance to their lodges from being blocked by ice in the winter and to create a water body with enough depth to hide themselves from their predators, beavers build dams in locations with shallow, slow moving water rather than fast, deep rivers and streams. To obstruct the flow of the flowing water and create a diversion, the beavers first chew away at the bark of trees and branches close to the river or stream. The beaver then builds a superstructure on top of the foundation by piling twigs, stones, leaves, branches, grasses, uprooted plants, and anything else he may find on top of the framework. The typical dimensions of beaver dams are 5 feet in height, a few feet to over 330 feet in length, and 1.2 to 1.8 meters in depth for the water reservoir they create.

Effects

The construction of dams can help restore wetlands. Flood control further downstream, biodiversity (by providing habitat for various species), and water purification are also advantages of wetlands, including the breakdown of pollutants like pesticides and the retention of silt by beaver dams. Beaver dams lessen turbidity, which can be a limiting factor for some aquatic organisms, as well as erosion. Unless a catchment is properly watched, the advantages can be long-term and largely undetectable. Wetlands are essential to about half of North America’s threatened and endangered species.

A systematic review on the effects of beaver dams on fish and fish habitat was done in 2012; it was heavily biased toward North America (88%) at the time. The most commonly mentioned advantages of beaver dams were improved habitat variability, invertebrate production, and habitat for rearing and overwintering as well as flow refuge. The most frequently mentioned adverse effects included reduced fish mobility due to dams, siltation of spawning habitat, and low oxygen levels in ponds. Costs were less frequently mentioned than benefits.

Flood Control

A freeboard above the water’s surface may exist on a beaver dam. The river or lake fills up after a period of heavy rain. The excess water is then gradually released from the dam, somewhat lowering the height of the flood wave as it travels downstream.

Any stream’s surface will cross the nearby water table. Raising the stream level reduces the gradient of the water table’s surface above the beaver dam, causing the water to flow into the stream more gradually. When it doesn’t rain, this might also aid in minimizing flood waves and boosting water flow. In other words, beaver dams increase the area soaked by the stream, hence reducing the roughness of the water flow. More water is able to sink into the earth, slowing down its flow. Eventually, this water returns to the stream. Lower high water and greater low water levels are found in rivers with beaver dams in their head waters.

They can stabilize a changing water table, which affects the amounts of both water and carbon, in wetlands like peatlands by elevating the water table there. In a 2017 study on the hydrology of beaver dams, it was discovered that monitoring beaver dams in a peatland in the Rocky Mountains increased groundwater storage and regional water balance, which can be helpful for avoiding drought. The work offered promise to enhance carbon sequestration as well.

Excess nutrient removal

The stream flow may lose nutrients as a result of beaver ponds. Farming close to riverbanks frequently increases the loads of phosphates, nitrates, and other nutrients, which can cause eutrophication and perhaps contaminate drinking water. In addition to twigs, branches, and silt from the beavers’ activity, the beaver dam also gathers leaves, especially in the fall. The majority of this material is composed of cellulose, a polymer of -glucose monomers. Compared to starch, which is composed of glucose monomers, cellulose is a polysaccharide and has a more crystalline structure. Numerous bacteria make cellulase, which may extract glucose and use it for energy. These bacteria acquire their energy from cellulose exactly like algae do from sunlight, and they are the basis of a very similar food cycle. Additionally, bacterial colonies take up nitrogen and phosphorus compounds as they flow by in the water stream and maintain the beaver pond and the local ecology with these and other nutrients.

Denitrification

Some scientists think that the generation of more fixed nitrogen than the natural cycles can convert back into nitrogen gas, known as the nitrogen cascade, may be just as harmful to the ecosystem of the planet as carbon dioxide emissions. Beaver dams along a stream have been linked to denitrification, according to studies (the conversion of nitrogen compounds back into nitrogen). Nitrogen gas is created from nitrates by bacteria that live in the dirt and plant debris that accumulates around the dams. The gas bubbles up to the surface where it rejoins the atmosphere.

Salmon and Trout

Ponds and surrounding beaver dams are good places for salmon and trout to grow. This was first noted after the 1818 agreement between the American and British governments providing Americans access to the Columbia watershed. The Hudson’s Bay Company was so furious that it immediately issued its trappers orders to drive the fur-bearing animals out of the area. The beaver was the first native species to go extinct. The years that followed saw a severe decline in salmon runs even though none of the factors associated with the loss of salmon flows were in place at the time.

For a variety of reasons, beaver dams enhance salmon flows. Ponds that are deep enough for young salmon to hide from hungry wading birds are so produced. In particular, they sequester the nutritious pulse, which is represented by the adult salmon’s voyage upstream, in their ecology. These nutrients help in feeding the young after the yolk sac has been digested. Because dams create calm water, young salmon may use their energy for growing rather than navigating currents, larger smolts with a food store have a higher rate of survival when they reach the sea. Beaver dams also keep the water clean, which is advantageous to all salmonoids.

Disruption

Beaver dam flooding can ruin buildings and wipe out railroad rails, causing derailments. Beaver dam breaches can overwhelm culverts.

Traditional solutions for beaver problems include capturing and removing all beavers. Beaver populations in the U.S. have made a remarkable recovery (after being on the edge of extinction in the 18th century) and are predicted to continuing recolonizing suitable habitat. Modern technologies are low-maintenance and cost-effective.

Beavers are a pest because they flooded thousands of acres after being introduced to Tierra del Fuego, where they have no natural predators. Tierra del Fuego’s trees can’t be coppiced, unlike willows, poplars, and aspens. Thus, beaver damage appears worse. Beavers can harm endangered species’ breeding grounds, therefore their damage isn’t limited to human regions.

Warming Arctic temperatures allow beavers to expand their habitat further north, where their dams impede boat traffic, restrict food access, damage river quality, and jeopardize downstream fish populations. The dams’ reservoirs store heat, affecting local hydrology and thawing permafrost, which contributes to global warming.

Conclusion

Beavers’ small-scale dams can teach us a lot about dam construction, including its benefits and drawbacks. We can also examine how beaver dams helped a region that was previously poorly populated by wildlife gradually develop into a rich wetland environment. Contrary to human-built dams, which typically result in widespread human population relocation and extensive ecological harm, beaver-built dams have the exact opposite effect of luring species to the newly created wetlands. This fact unequivocally demonstrates that nature’s own methods are always preferable to those of humans.