Beavers are considered a keystone species in their ecosystem.
This means they help define the entire ecosystem.
If beavers entirely disappeared from the ecosystem, no other species would be able to fill their role.
The beaver has such a specific ecological niche that the ecosystem itself would be forced to change in its absence.
Beavers are known as allogenic engineers, changing their environment from one state to another.
Here are some of the roles beavers play in the ecosystem as a keystone species and allogenic engineers.
1. Beavers maintain woodland ecosystems
Did you know that an american beaver can fell a foot-wide tree overnight?
They gnaw down trees and build dams to create a pond and lodge where they can live.
These ponds give them protection from predators like wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions.
However, these actions do not benefit the beavers alone, they also open the woodland around them.
By taking down trees, beavers permit pioneering and light-hungry plants to grow.
Furthermore, when beaver dams are built, they reduce the water flow of rivers and streams.
This floods the local area and creates the basic requirements for complex wetland habitats to form.
These wetland habitats are greatly important to all other species in the ecosystem — not just the beaver.
Examples of these species include otter, water vole, waterfowl, great crested newt, as well as other insects, fish, aquatic plants, etc.
2. Beavers convert trees to timber
Beavers act as nature’s lumberjacks.
They have expert tree-chopping skills that they use to construct lodges and dams.
They mostly prefer softwood trees like aspen, cottonwood, willow, and dogwood.
However, they also gnaw on hardwood trees to sharpen their continuously growing teeth.
Beavers change forests but not necessarily in a bad way.
As an ecosystem engineer, they are a natural source of disturbance.
They create an opening in older forests and provide habitat to many other kinds of wildlife.
The patches that they produce will create more structural diversity in these areas.
3. They build dams
Dams are what beavers are known for.
Beavers build their own habitats by constructing dams, but they also greatly affect the environment through these creations.
Beavers can transform part of a river or stream and make it completely watertight in less than 24 hours.
As a species, beavers are attracted to the sound of running water.
To create a dam, they use the smallest possible crossway where the water runs.
If you’ve ever had a beaver in your neighborhood before, you may have seen them near running water.
They typically love culverts or drainpipes.
Both pipes echo the sound of running water, which attracts these ecosystem engineers.
If you ever see a beaver’s dam where it doesn’t belong, you shouldn’t waste your time tearing it down.
Humans will never win against beavers.
It can take humans 12 hours to remove a dam, and the beaver will have rebuilt it the next day in 2 hours.
If a beaver damming an area is a perpetual problem, then you’ll need to seek out a dam deterrent.
However, regardless of the inconvenience that beaver dams can sometimes create for humans, they are necessary for the environment.
The dams play a significant role in the beaver’s environment.
While beavers don’t live in the dam itself, they use the dam to create ponds of deeper water.
In the center of this deep water, they build a lodge where predators have a much harder time reaching them.
The lodge itself has several levels and underwater entrances.
The foundation of the lodge is on the pond floor, and it extends several levels upward.
Eventually, the lodge appears over the water level, which can be seen by the naked eye.
However, if you’re just looking at a beaver’s dam, you may not otherwise know about the elaborate lodge that they built.
The dams also have hollows and passages inside so beavers can come and go whenever they please.
This is especially helpful in allowing them to avoid predators like bears, wolves, river otters, etc.
They may also use their dams as a place of temporary shelter during sudden storms.
Finally, in the fall and summer, they’ll hide food inside to ensure they have enough stores for winter.
While beavers are highly necessary for the environment, there are a few drawbacks to their dams.
Interference with fish migration
Creation of areas of standing water and flooding
Reduction of water temperature (although this is often viewed as a positive impact on climate change)
4. Beavers convert woodland meadows and streams into wetland habitats
One of the greatest benefits of beavers is that they create new wetland areas.
Their dams make new pools of water which attract diverse flora and fauna to the area.
The ponds can also stop flooding when they collect large amounts of water and slow down runoff.
Countless species thrive in wetland habitats.
As a result, when beavers create them, they promote biodiversity in the local ecosystem.
Here are just some of the species you may see in wetlands.
- Black bears
5. Beavers increase biodiversity
Beavers have a positive effect on biodiversity because they help to create habitats for other animals.
These animals include various birds, amphibians, mammals, fish species, and more.
Beaver wetlands help to support a large array of animals, especially when you compare these habitats to ponds without beavers.
For this reason, beavers are considered “ecosystem engineers.”
They are constantly creating, modifying, and maintaining habitats and ecosystems.
They cut trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants, altering the vegetation composition of their territories.
This impacts the way other species live and feed in the area.
Here are the primary roles that beavers play in their ecosystems.
First, they’ll build dams
These dams create wetlands.
These wetlands may flood and kill trees.
When these trees die, they create snags, which attract insects, fish, and wildlife.
Beavers also build lodges that can provide homes for other small animals and mammals
Most commonly, these include muskrats, mink, and river otters.
At the base of the lodges, small fishes often create their homes while birds tend to nest at the top.
Just a single beaver or beaver family in an ecosystem has a disproportionate influence on the species around them.
Because beaver ponds are biodiversity hotspots, making an effort to protect beavers and their habitats means conserving biodiversity overall.
6. Beavers help reduce the impacts of climate change
Did you know that beavers can help the environment, specifically when it comes to fighting climate change?
A study showed that water temperatures downstream of beaver ponds were 2.5 degrees Celsius lower than upstream.
This is due to the fact that the beaver pond recharges groundwater, which resurfaces colder downstream.
Both air and water temperatures impact fish and wildlife.
Climate change and other human impacts have negatively affected nature.
Having downstream cooling effects from beavers could help to mitigate climate change in the long term.
Although a beaver’s wetland releases methane gas, this is part of the natural wetland process.
Their ponds also store carbon, which is another positive impact that can help mitigate climate change.
With that, the great way that beavers help absorb the human effects of climate change is by storing water and improving hydrologic conditions.
This includes the following:
Increased water storage on the surface of the ponds as they’re created
Causing water to filter down into the water table
Preventing streams from going dry
Climate change means additional rain and less snow in the U.S.’s northwest region.
This means that high-flow events will be more likely in the future.
A beaver’s dam adds “roughness” to the channel which slows down water as it moves through a system.
Slowing water is important to nature because fast-flowing water causes erosion, and it can also cause flooding if it isn’t properly controlled.
Even if a beaver pond already appears full, it can absorb water, which means the volume of water available will decrease.
Because beaver dams impound water in areas that wouldn’t otherwise be saturated, these wetlands become natural fire breaks.
This is critical in areas like the Cascades where wildfires are likely to occur.
7. Dams store water during droughts
Beavers are a major contributor to keeping watersheds wet.
They help to reduce the effects of droughts because they encourage water to be stored on the surface and absorbed into the ground of the land due to the impoundment of water by their dams.
As a result, stream flow can increase during drought periods and make ecosystems less vulnerable during dry periods.
8. Beavers also minimize flood risks
Beavers help minimize the risks of floods as well as drought.
They help with water issues in all capacities.
Their dams help to slow the flow of water which thus delays and reduces flood peaks further downstream.
Because of this, the reintroduction of beavers has been called for in certain areas like Southern England after heavy flooding events.
People have called them “nature’s water manager.”
Studies have also suggested that wetland areas can hold up to 40 times as much water when beavers are present because they “reinstall the sponges” to the landscape.
When beavers are present, water doesn’t cascade down to the river valley but only gradually increases.
Beavers are particularly important to the environment these days because modern land management has exacerbated flood risk.
This land management consists of draining uplands and bogs, cutting down trees, straightening rivers, and driving out beavers.
9. Beavers help improve water quality
When beavers build a dam, it creates a pond which helps to protect them against predators like coyotes, wolves, and bears.
This pond also holds their food for the winter.
While it’s an incredibly practical move for the beaver, it also helps to improve water quality.
Beaver ponds will filter water and store nutrients, pollutants, and sediment.
If the dam is left in place long enough, then this sediment can create a marshy meadow (also known as a beaver meadow).
Beavers use the mud on the bottom of their ponds to build and restore their dams.
As a result, you won’t see beavers building dams in rocky areas or where fish like to spawn.
What Would Happen If Beavers Became Extinct?
As noted above, beavers play a key role in ecosystems.
So, what would the world look like if they no longer existed?
Some areas would become too choked by trees
Many people worry that beavers chop down too many trees for their dams.
However, this isn’t necessarily true.
Beavers thin out trees as needed and make room for new ones.
The most aggressive plants in a wetland would dominate the ecosystem
This would cause the area to become overgrown within a matter of seasons.
There would be less diversity of species
Beavers help to bring new animals to the wetland because of the ponds that they create with their dams.
These animals come to rely on the dams for their habitat.
If beavers were no longer in the picture, then these animals would have to find a way to adapt to a new and different environment.
Beavers are critical to their ecosystems.
The roles beavers play in the ecosystem are countless.
They create, maintain, and protect wetlands for dozens of other animals.
They’re even instrumental in cooling the Earth and mitigating the impacts of climate change.
If you’re a landowner, you can play the important role of protecting the beaver to ensure they can continue to do their job.
You should practice proven coexistence techniques like limiting pesticide use and runoff into waterways and wetlands.
You’re most likely to see beavers in North America in areas with ponds, lakes, streams, and rivers.
And if ever beavers are annoying to you for one reason or another, remember that when you save a beaver you save an ecosystem.
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