Beavers are among the largest of the rodents. They have a combined head and body length of 31 to 58 inches (80 to 140 centimeters). The flat, paddle-like tail is about 9.8 to 17.7 inches (25 to 45 centimeters) long. The tail is broad and scaly. A typical beaver can weigh 33 to 75 pounds (15 to 33 kilograms), with a few beavers weighing in at 100 pounds (45 kilograms). Males and females are similar in size.
Beavers’ bodies are stocky with short limbs. Each limb has five clawed digits. The back feet, which are larger than the front, are webbed. The claws on the hind feet’s first and second toes are split, appearing as a double claw. They have long, curved incisors, chisel-shaped teeth at the front of the mouth, that are an orange-brown color. The incisors grow continuously.
Their eyes are small and their ears are short. Their ears are set far back on their heads, which are broad and rounded. Beavers can close both their ears and nostrils when underwater. Beavers have a skin fold inside their mouths, which allows them to grasp onto items in their teeth without water entering their throat.
Beavers’ fur is dense, made up of a fine coat of soft fur, called underfur, beneath long guard hairs, coarse hairs that form the outer fur and protect the underfur. The short underfur helps the beaver with water shedding and insulation. Fur color is a glossy yellowish brown to black. Their bellies are slightly paler in color, ranging from a brown to yellowish brown. The tail and feet are black.
The family name “Castoridae” refers to beavers’ castor glands, or “castors.” A gland is a group of special cells that make substances so that other parts of the body can work. This pair of glands, along with a pair of anal glands, releases a pungent, musky odor. Both sets of glands lie at the base of the tail.
Beavers are found in North America, northern Europe, and northern Asia. After a decrease in population, these animals have been reintroduced to Russia, Scandinavia, and Argentina. They are also found in Chile.
Beavers live primarily along streams, ponds, lakes, swamps and other waterways, in areas where they can build dams. They are found mainly in areas with a year-round water flow, but are found occasionally in roadside ditches, drainage ditches, and sewage ponds. They are have also become more common in urban areas.
Beavers feed primarily on the bark and outer layers of deciduous trees such as birch, willow, alder, sweet gum, magnolia, maple, and dogwood. They eat twigs, leaves, and roots of trees and shrubs. They also eat various parts of aquatic plants, especially the young shoots of water lilies. During the warmer months, they may add grasses, corn, and other plants to their diet.
BEHAVIOR AND REPRODUCTION
Beavers are generally nocturnal, active at night. They are active year round. These animals are semiaquatic, living partly on land and partly in water, and are graceful moving about in water. They use their webbed feet and paddle-like tails to swim.
Beavers are hard workers and are considered the engineers of the animal kingdom because of the complex dams and lodges they build. Dams can be extensive, reaching over 10 feet (3 meters) high and stretching hundreds of feet long. A typical dam is 65 to 98 feet (20 to 30 meters) long. Mud and stones may set the foundation, base, for the dam. Brush and poles are added with the butt ends facing upstream, and mud, stones, and soggy vegetation are used as plaster on top of the poles. A dam is built higher than the water level. With maintenance and upkeep, dams are used by several generations of beavers.
Beavers may create multiple homes in their territory. Homes can take the form of a burrow, hole or tunnel, along a bank to make a den, or a wood lodge. Built of sticks and mud, the dome-shaped lodge is generally surrounded by the water backed up by the dam. The lodge may eventually reach more than 6.6 feet (2 meters) above the surface of the water. Each home may have several underwater entrances, which must reach below the winter ice. In some areas, especially near large rivers, beavers dig complex dens instead of building lodges. Burrows also may have underwater entrances that lead to the dry areas.
Beavers live in colonies, groups, of four to eight related individuals. Generally, the colony consists of a mated pair of adults and young that are less than two years old. There is usually only a single breeding female in a colony. A single beaver colony sometimes maintains several dams to control water flow.
The oil that beavers’ glands produce is used to mark their territory. This oil is also used to grease the beaver’s fur coat to make it water repellent. Constant grooming and this oil keeps beavers’ fur waterproof. It uses its second claw on its hind feet for grooming. Males and females display territorial behavior and will fight trespassing beavers. Communication is through postures, scent marking, tail slapping, and vocalizations, including a whistling or whining call.
In the winter, beavers anchor sticks and logs underwater to feed on during winter. If their pond freezes over, they swim beneath the ice and feed on previously stored food. The senses of hearing, smell, and touch are well developed.
Beavers usually mate for life and are monogamous, have one mate. If one of the pair dies, the beaver may then find another mate. Females are dominant. Mating takes place once a year from January to March. Gestation, pregnancy, is 100 to 110 days. Females generally have three to four offspring, called kits, but can have anywhere from one to nine. Offspring generally will nurse for two to three months.
BEAVERS AND PEOPLE
Beavers were once common throughout Europe, Asia, and North America before people began hunting them for their thick, glossy pelts, fur. People used these pelts for coats and hats. People also dined on beaver and used the scents produced by their castor glands for perfume. In Europe, beavers were almost hunted to extinction, no longer existing, by 1860 C.E.
Beavers also can affect the water flow of an ecosystem. By constructing dams and burrowing into banks, they increase the wetland area and overall growth in an area. This helps organisms around the area flourish. For people, beaver’s altering of a landscape can be a nuisance. Damming can flood roads, crops, and homes.
Populations of beavers, once extremely low, are gaining in numbers. The Eurasian beaver is listed as Near Threatened, not currently threatened, but could become so, by the World Conservation Union (IUCN).