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Wild Thing

Nature’s Engineers

Fascinating BEAVERS create their own wetlands.


Beavers are the demolition crew of the natural world. No other animals — well, besides humans — change their environment more drastically than these chubby, paddle-tailed rodents. Whether that determined construction work makes the beaver a hero or a pariah depends on whom you ask.

The world’s second-largest rodent, Castor canadensis weighs in at 30 to 60 pounds, and is descended from an ancient rodent that tipped the scales at 800 pounds (the stuff of nightmares). Don’t let the beaver’s ungainly waddle on land fool you — designed for the water, it can swim 5 to 6 miles per hour. They’re certainly safer from predators while in the water.

That’s why the beaver must live near water, and if there’s not enough, it’ll clear the woods to build a dam to catch more. A pair of beavers can build a dam from sticks and stones and mud across a small stream in two or three days. Beavers also construct a lodge or burrow as living quarters from the same materials.
While the beavers’ creation of new wetlands can be beneficial to wildlife, neighbors are less than pleased when the new dams cause unwanted flooding of their property.

The chestnut-brown beaver’s special fur, with long guard hairs and an oily undercoat, helps it glide through the water, but it requires frequent attention. These well-designed creatures have a built-in grooming device — the split toenails on a beaver’s hind feet can comb through the tangles. The beaver beauty routine is not complete until the fur is oiled. The beaver sits on its tail, releasing pungent, yellow oil (castor) from a gland, then uses its front feet to distribute the oil throughout its fur.

While lacking thumbs, the beaver’s nimble front paws handle small objects with dexterity. They roll up lily pads like cigars to eat them.

An unusual tail, shaped like a prickly pear cactus pad, gives the beaver a prehistoric look. It’s a foot long, 6 inches wide and less than an inch thick, sparsely dotted with bristly hairs. Used as a brace when the beaver cuts down a tree or sits upright, the tail is also used to warn or express anger when slapped on the ground or water. That paddle is used as a rudder to steer while swimming, especially with a heavy load.

A slowed heartbeat and enlarged organs enable beavers to stay underwater for up to 15 minutes; they can swim a half-mile underwater before resurfacing.

Another distinctive feature is a pair of big, orange buck teeth. The teeth are always growing, so beavers must grind them down by gnawing. 

Around the 1850s, Texas beaver population dwindled from excessive trapping, but some survived along remote Hill Country streams, the Devils River, the Panhandle and around El Paso. Strict regulations and restocking brought the beaver back across the state, especially in hospitable habitat in Northeast Texas.

 Frank Fichtmueller | Dreamstime.com

Common name:

Beaver

Scientific name:

Castor canadensis

Habitat:

Aquatic, DIY dammed-up ponds and wetlands.

Diet:

Favorites are water lily tubers, clover, grasses, leaves, berries, twigs and green bark.

Did you know:

Beavers leave secret messages for each other with a castor-scented, gender-specific “mud patty.”

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