Beavers: Radical Rodents and Ecosystems Engineers
Beavers: Radical Rodents and Ecosystems Engineers
A steward is someone who manages and takes care of something. Beavers are outstanding water stewards and in this time of climate crisis, that 's more important than ever. If we give beavers room to live, they can be our climate-change allies, helping to ease the impact of both drier and wetter conditions.
One way beavers manage and take care of water is by storing it. Water held in beaver ponds is easy to see, but beaver engineering also increases underground water storage. When water collects in a pond instead of rushing downstream, it has time to seep into the ground around it and raise the water table. The pond is like a sink, and the surrounding land is like a giant sponge that sucks up moisture and then slowly releases it. During periods of drought this slow release keeps streams flowing and groundwater within reach of plant roots. As a result, plants don't go thirsty and the animals that eat them don't go hungry. Fish, frogs, ducks and other water-dependent creatures don't lose their homes. And our taps don't run dry.
Water stored by beavers also helps fight wildfires. Since water doesn't burn, the saturated soil around beaver ponds, the ponds themselves, can put the brakes on raging fires. For animals fleeing flames, beaver-created wetlands are a refuge.
Beavers: Radical Rodents and Ecosystems Engineers joins a growing list of “Orca Wild” books highlighting our relationships with vulnerable species and habitats. While the beaver's story is largely one of conservation success, it still may be scarce in areas where it once thrived. This thorough examination of beaver information will enlighten readers about the history of its decline and recovery, past and current attitudes toward this fascinating animal, and its value as a keystone species in the ecosystem.
The “Introduction” focuses on the biologist/author's description of a personal encounter with a beaver that led her to consider the wealth of stories, and stories yet to be told, about this animal familiar to many. Four highly informative chapters follow: “The Mighty Beaver” (physiology, life cycle, habits, habitat); “Habitat Makers and Community Creators” (specialized skills, why it is a keystone species); “From Slaughter to Salvation” (history of the fur trade and recovery efforts); and “Living with Beavers” (conflicts with people, benefits to the ecosystem, our future with beavers). Interspersed throughout the book are inserts: Beaver Tales, Beaver Backers, and Castor Facts. Completing the book, a Glossary, comprehensive Resources list (including multiple entries about conservation projects), and Index (to come in final copy) will facilitate further investigation by motivated readers.
The depth of detail attests to the quality of research here. Many are familiar with the beaver's tree felling tactics but may not be aware of the total reliance these animals have on every part of a tree for food and construction materials. Many may know of the beaver's semi-aquatic lifestyle but may not realize its special adaptations of nostrils and ears sealed by valves or lips that close behind front teeth so they can chew underwater. And that versatile flat tail: it's a steering rudder, a prop while gnawing a tree trunk, a fat storage mechanism for winter, a heating and cooling device, as well as a communication tool.
Detailed descriptions of dam and lodge building help the reader understand specific skills used to create these well-known structures. It was fascinating to learn, though, how canal building is also vital to their success. Channels fanning out from the edges of beaver ponds allow safe access to trees. But they are also dug along pond bottoms: "underwater trenches provide extra depth for swimming when the pond freezes over in winter or the water level drops in summer."
The historical accounts of the key role beavers played in the lucrative fur trade from the 1500s to the early1900s are given extensive treatment in the third chapter. The involvement of both European traders and their Indigenous partners as demand for beaver pelts soared saw the beaver in North America come perilously close to extinction. The book points out that the loss was not only the removal of a significant species from the landscape, but it was also a threat to cultural traditions. No chronicle of the beaver would be complete without reference to Grey Owl, a key figure in the battle to change attitudes towards trapping. But others are mentioned too, like Veasy Collier's BC family who rebuilt abandoned dams to recreate a lake in British Columbia, then restocked it with beavers.
In any book that focuses on our relationship with a significant species, the final chapter devoted to understanding human-animal conflicts and pointing out benefits and means of coexistence is an important one. We tend to categorize animals whose habits impact in some way with our own as either good or bad species. Beavers aren't either one: they are simply filling a role in the ecosystem. It is up to us to adapt our ways so both can survive. This chapter does a good job of describing ways to mitigate effects of beaver activity in close proximity to human habitation. For instance, installing a flow device in a beaver pond will regulate water levels preventing flooding. An exclusion fence at a culvert will prevent beavers from damming it. Wire-wrapping desirable trees or painting the trunks with a sand-paint mixture will deter beavers from cutting them down. One of the most interesting ideas explained in the book is a beaver dam analog: a framework of posts and vegetation raises water levels and encourages beavers to take over dam construction in a spot where one would benefit the environment. Young readers are encouraged to look for ways to celebrate beavers and help foster positive attitudes about them.
So much interesting content makes Beavers a good book to read in small bites. In particular, I found it helpful to read through the main chapter text, then return to enjoy the 10 inserts which pack in a ton more facts (in smaller font size to work it all in) about specific aspects of beaver lore. For instance, fossils have revealed a wide range in sizes of beavers. Google Earth pinpoints the largest, and smallest dams. What about beavers outside North America? There's an insert for that too. The sections called Beaver Backers relate the amazing story of a pet beaver from the 1940s as well as accounts of Citizen Science volunteers involved in beaver studies for conservation and relocation. If you ever wanted to know how to make a beaver hat (keeping in mind the disastrous historical outcome), one of the Castor Facts gives a description. Another depicts Canada's first postage stamp from 1851 which, of course, portrayed a beaver.
Beavers is illustrated with excellent photos, well-captioned to add even more information. The designers truly used every opportunity to include details of interest. With such a rich history, the beaver offers much for us to learn and a great deal to appreciate about its role in the ecosystem—including how fortunate we are that most of them live in North America. This resource will serve as a valuable tool to encourage middle grade readers to know beavers better and to see the desirability for our coexistence with them.
Gillian Richardson is a freelance writer living in British Columbia.