In the middle of our spring tree planting, the Watershed Protection Team had quite the surprise when we spotted evidence of beaver activity in Ashbridge Preserve. A single tree was knocked down along Ridley Creek, with distinctive teeth marks that indicated a beaver had found itself a tasty meal. While it is too soon to tell if the beaver will make a home at Ashbridge, we wanted to take this opportunity to share the history of beavers in the area and the special role they play in stream ecosystems.
Beavers are the largest rodent found in North America, reaching 3 feet in length and weighing between 30 and 60 pounds. They have small faces, stocky brown bodies, and a distinctively hairless, paddle-shaped tail. Their tail allows beavers to be distinguished from groundhogs, which have short, furry tails, as well as muskrats, which have long, hairless tails. Beavers are well-adapted for an aquatic lifestyle; when they dive underwater, their eyes are protected by a set of transparent eyelids and their ears and nose are protected by watertight membranes. They can remain underwater for 15 minutes, and their oily, waterproof fur helps them stay dry. Their webbed feet and rudder-like tail allows beavers to swim at speeds of 5 miles per hour.
Beavers were once abundant throughout North America, from northern Mexico all the way up to the southern Arctic. However, they were heavily hunted for their waterproof pelts by European colonizers, and their numbers dropped rapidly. In Pennsylvania, beavers were wiped out by the beginning of the twentieth century. Reintroduction efforts in the 1920s proved successful, and beaver populations have been stable in Pennsylvania since the 1930s, though they likely are not as abundant as they were before European colonization. There are a few known beaver colonies near Willistown in Ridley and Darby creeks and evidence of beaver activity can occasionally be spotted in Willistown, and most recently at Ashbridge Preserve.
Beavers are perhaps nature’s most effective engineers, changing entire ecosystems to fit their needs. They build their homes, called lodges, almost exclusively in the middle of slow-moving ponds, where the surrounding water acts as a moat that protects them from terrestrial predators. If no such pond can be found, beavers dam streams and rivers to create the perfect pond. To create their dams, beavers cut down trees with their chisel-like teeth, which constantly grow and self-sharpen. They generally prefer trees with diameters of less than 3 inches, but will cut down larger trees if small trees are not readily available. They construct their dam with logs, branches, twigs and grasses and seal everything into place with mud.
Once the dam backs up enough water, beavers build wood and mud lodges in the middle of the pond that can be 6 feet high and up to 40 feet wide. These lodges have 1 or 2 underwater entrances, a ‘living area’ above the water line, and a small air hole in the top to provide ventilation. A lodge houses a colony made of a breeding pair (which mate for life), the current years’ kits, and the surviving offspring from the year before. Before the kits are born, the female drives out the second year young. After the young are driven out from the den, they disperse to find new habitat and form their own colonies.
Beaver settlement causes widespread changes to an ecosystem. The first noticeable change is the clearing of several trees — typically small — that the beaver will use to build its dam. After the dam is built, the creek will start to back up, flooding the adjacent land and forming a small pond. More trees may be felled to build the beaver’s lodge. What was once a wooded valley with a small stream becomes an open pond bordered by wetland vegetation. This new pond supports a host of wetland species that would not otherwise be found in the area — ducks, geese, herons, turtles, fish, frogs, salamanders and more. Even beaver lodges create habitat: the underwater base of the lodge provides shelter for young fish and the top of the lodge can be a nesting area for birds.
Beyond supporting a biodiverse ecosystem, beavers and their dams improve local water quality. Beaver ponds trap and slow down water, reducing downstream flooding during major storm events. By slowing down the flow of water, beaver dams also allow more water to seep through the soil and replenish groundwater resources. As water passes through a beaver pond, fine sediment and pollutants are filtered out, resulting in cleaner water downstream of the dam.
Beavers inhabit a pond until they deplete all nearby food sources, usually after 20 to 30 years. At this point, they abandon their pond and lodge and move on to new habitat. Without constant maintenance, the dam slowly breaks down and eventually breaches. The pond drains and the previously submerged seed bank begins to germinate. Shrubs and trees re-establish in the area and, eventually, the open land turns back into a wooded valley.
By Anna Willig