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Beaver dam

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Beaver dam at Algonquin Park in Ontario, Canada

A beaver dam or beaver impoundment is a dam built by beavers; it creates a pond which protects against predators such as coyotes, wolves and bears, and holds their food during winter. These structures modify the natural environment in such a way that the overall ecosystem builds upon the change, making beavers a keystone species and ecosystem engineers. They build prolifically at night, carrying mud with their forepaws and timber between their teeth.


North American beaver (Castor canadensis), one of two species of beaver

A minimum water level of 0.6 to 0.9 metres (2.0 to 3.0 ft) is required to keep the underwater entrance to beaver lodges from being blocked by ice during the winter.[citation needed] In lakes, rivers and large streams with deep enough water, beavers may not build dams, and live in bank burrows and lodges.[1]

Beaver dam in Lassen Volcanic National Park

Beavers start construction by diverting the stream to lessen the water's flow pressure. Branches and logs are then driven into the mud of the stream bed to form a base.[1] Then sticks, bark (from deciduous trees), rocks, mud, grass, leaves, masses of plants, and anything else available are used to build the superstructure. Beavers can transport their own weight in material;[citation needed] they drag logs along mudslides and float them through canals to get them in place.[2] Once the dam has flooded enough area to the proper depth to form a protective moat for the lodge (often covering many acres), beavers begin construction of the lodge.[3]

Beavers use rocks for their dam when mud and branches are less available as seen on Bear Creek, a tributary to the Truckee River, in Alpine Meadows, California

Trees approaching a diameter of 90 centimetres (3.0 ft) may be used to construct a dam, although the average is 10 to 30 centimetres (3.9 to 11.8 in). Log length depends on the diameter of the tree and the size of the beaver. There are recorded cases of beavers felling trees of 45 metres (148 ft) tall and 115 centimetres (45 in) in diameter. Logs of this size are not intended to be used as structural members of the dam; rather, the bark is used for food, and sometimes to get to upper branches. It takes a beaver about 20 minutes to cut down a 15-centimetre (5.9 in) wide aspen, by gnawing a groove around the trunk in an hourglass shape. A beaver's jaws are powerful enough to cut a 1.5-centimetre (0.59 in) sapling in one bite.[3]

Maintenance work on the dam and lodges is often done in autumn.[citation needed]

If beavers are considered central place foragers, their canals may be considered an extension of their "central place" far beyond the lodge, according to a 2004–2012 study that mapped beaver ponds and cut stumps.[4]

Some people consider[like whom?] that by building dams beavers are expressing tool use behaviour.[5]


Beaver dams typically range in length from a few meters to about 100 metres (330 ft).[6] Canals can be over 0.5 kilometres (1,600 ft) long.[7] The largest known beaver dam is in Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada, and is 775 metres (2,543 ft) long.[8] Satellite photos provided by NASA WorldWind show the dam did not exist in 1975, but it appeared in subsequent images. It has two or more lodges and is a combination of two original dams. Google Earth images show new dams being built which could ultimately join the main dam and increase the overall length by another 50 to 100 metres (160 to 330 ft) during the next decade.[9] Coordinates: 58°16′15″N 112°15′6″W / 58.27083°N 112.25167°W / 58.27083; -112.25167.

Another large beaver dam measuring 2,139 feet (650 m) long,[10] 14 feet (4.3 m) high and 23 feet (7.0 m) thick at the base was found in Three Forks, Montana.[3]


Beaver dam in winter in Mont Mégantic

Dam building can help to restore damaged wetlands. Wetland benefits include flood control downstream, biodiversity (by providing habitat for different species), and water cleansing, both by the breakdown of toxins such as pesticides and the retention of silt by beaver dams. Beaver dams reduce erosion and decrease the turbidity that can be a limiting factor for some aquatic life. The benefits may be long-term and largely unnoticed unless a catchment is monitored closely. Almost half of endangered and threatened species in North America rely upon wetlands.[11]

In 2012, a systematic review was conducted on the impacts of beaver dams on fishes and fish habitat (biased to North America (88%)). The most frequently cited benefits of beaver dams were increased habitat heterogeneity, rearing and overwintering habitat, flow refuge, and invertebrate production. Impeded fish movement because of dams, siltation of spawning habitat and low oxygen levels in ponds were the most often cited negative impacts. Benefits (184) were cited more frequently than costs (119).[12]

Flood control[edit]

Beaver dam as depicted in Frances Fuller Victor's 1887 book Eleven years in the Rocky Mountains and a life on the frontier.

A beaver dam may have a freeboard above the water level. When heavy rains occur, the river or lake fills up. Afterward the dam gradually releases the extra stored water, thus somewhat reducing the height of the flood wave moving down the river.[13][14]

The surface of any stream intersects the surrounding water table. By raising the stream level, the gradient of the surface of the water table above the beaver dam is reduced, and water near the beaver dam flows more slowly into the stream. This may also help in reducing flood waves, and increasing water flow when there is no rain. In other words, beaver dams smooth out water flow by increasing the area wetted by the stream. This allows more water to seep into the ground where its flow is slowed. This water eventually finds its way back to the stream. Rivers with beaver dams in their head waters have lower high water and higher low water levels.

By raising the water table in wetlands such as peatlands, they can stabilize a fluctuating water table, which influences the levels of both carbon and water. In a 2017 study of beaver dam hydrology, monitored beaver dams in a Rocky Mountain peatland were found to increase groundwater storage and regional water balance, which can be beneficial for preventing drought. The study also suggested potential to improve carbon sequestration.[15]

Excess nutrient removal[edit]

Beavers that work on top of heavy snowfall make cuts that are high above ground

Beaver ponds can cause the removal of nutrients from the stream flow. Farming along the banks of rivers often increases the loads of phosphates, nitrates and other nutrients, which can cause eutrophication and may contaminate drinking water. Besides silt, the beaver dam collects twigs and branches from the beavers' activity as well as leaves, notably in the autumn. The main component of this material is cellulose, a polymer of β-glucose monomers. (This creates a more crystalline structure than is found in starch, which is composed of α-glucose monomers. Cellulose is a type of polysaccharide.) Many bacteria produce cellulase which can split off the glucose and use it for energy. Just as algae receive energy from sunlight, these bacteria derive energy from cellulose, and form the base of a very similar food chain.

Additionally, bacterial populations absorb nitrogen and phosphorus compounds as they pass by in the water stream and keep these and other nutrients in the beaver pond and the surrounding ecology. [16]

Pesticide and herbicide removal[edit]

Agriculture introduces herbicides and pesticides into streams. Some of these toxicants are metabolized and decomposed by the bacteria in the cellulose-rich bottom of a beaver dam.


Some scientists believe that the nitrogen cascade, the production of more fixed nitrogen than the natural cycles can turn back into nitrogen gas, may be as much of a problem to Earth's ecology as carbon dioxide production. [17] Studies have shown that beaver dams along a stream contribute to denitrification (the conversion of nitrogen compounds back into nitrogen). Bacteria in the dirt and the plant debris, which collects at the dams, turns nitrates into nitrogen gas. The gas bubbles to the surface and mixes with the atmosphere once more.[18]

Salmon and trout[edit]

Large European beaver dam near Olden, Jämtland, Sweden
An experimental pipe through a beaver dam, placed to allow migratory fish to cross through the dam during their spawning season

Beaver dams and the associated ponds can provide nurseries for salmon and trout.[19] An early indication of this was seen following the 1818 agreement between the British government of Canada and the government of America allowing Americans access to the Columbia watershed. The Hudson's Bay Company, in a fit of pique, instructed its trappers to extirpate the fur-bearing animals in the area. The beaver was the first to be made locally extinct. Salmon runs fell precipitously in the following years, even though none of the factors associated with the decline of salmon runs were extant at that time.[20]

There are several reasons why beaver dams increase salmon runs.[21][22][23] They produce ponds that are deep enough for juvenile salmon to hide from predatory wading birds. They trap nutrients in their ecology and notably the nutrient pulse represented by the migration of the adult salmon upstream. These nutrients help feed the juveniles after the yolk sac has been digested. The dams provide calm water which means that the young salmon can use energy for growth rather than for navigating currents; larger smolts with a food reserve have a better rate of survival when they reach the sea. Finally, beaver dams keep the water clear which favours all salmonoids.

Smaller beaver dam on a creek near Fife Lake, Michigan


Beaver dams have been shown to be beneficial to frog and toad populations, likely because they provide protected areas for larvae to mature in warmer, well-oxygenated water.[24] A study in Alberta, Canada, showed that "Pitfall traps on beaver ponds captured 5.7 times more newly metamorphosed wood frogs, 29 times more western toads and 24 times more boreal chorus frogs than on nearby free-flowing streams."[25]


Beaver dams help migrating songbirds. By stimulating the growth of species of plants that are critical to populations of songbirds in decline, beaver dams help create food and habitat. The presence of beaver dams has been shown to be associated with an increased diversity of songbirds.[26] They can also have positive effects on local waterfowl, such as ducks, that are in need of standing water habitats.[27]


Canoeists try to run a beaver dam in Algonquin Park. The dam is about 1 m (3 ft 3 in) high.

Beaver dams can be disruptive; the flooding can cause extensive property damage, and, when the flooding occurs next to a railroad roadbed, it can cause derailments by washing out the tracks. When a beaver dam bursts, the resulting flash flood may overwhelm a culvert.

Traditional solutions to beaver problems have been focused on the trapping and removal of all the beavers in the area. While this is sometimes necessary, it is typically a short-lived solution, as beaver populations have made a remarkable comeback in the United States (after near extirpation in the nineteenth century) and are likely to continually recolonize suitable habitat.[28] Modern solutions include relatively cost-effective and low maintenance flow devices.

Introduced to an area without its natural predators, as in Tierra del Fuego, beavers have flooded thousands of acres of land and are considered a plague. One notable difference in Tierra del Fuego from most of North America is that the trees in Tierra del Fuego cannot be coppiced[citation needed] as can willows, poplars, aspens, and other North American trees. Thus the damage by the beavers seems more severe. The beaver's disruption is not limited to human geography; beavers can destroy nesting habitat for endangered species.

Warming temperatures in the Arctic allow beavers to extend their habitat further north, where their dams impair boat travel, impact access to food, affect water quality, and endanger downstream fish populations.[29] Pools formed by the dams store heat, thus changing local hydrology and causing localized thawing of permafrost that in turn contributes to global warming.[29]

Stream life cycle[edit]

Drained beaver pond in Adirondack State Park
Drained beaver pond in Allegany State Park

Wetland creation[edit]

If a beaver pond becomes too shallow due to sediment accumulation, or the tree supply is depleted, beavers will abandon the site. Eventually the dam will be breached and the water will drain out. The rich thick layer of silt, branches, and dead leaves behind the old dam is an ideal habitat for some wetland species.

Meadow creation[edit]

As the wetland fills up with plant debris and dries out, pasture species colonize it and the wetland may eventually become a meadow suitable for grazing in a previously forested area. This provides a valuable niche for many animals which otherwise would be excluded. Beaver dam creation also increases the plants the dams were made from (such as willows) to reproduce by cutting, encouraging the growth of adventitious roots.

Riverine forest[edit]

Finally the meadow will be colonized by riverine trees, typically aspens, willows and such species which are favoured by the beaver. Beavers are then likely to recolonize the area, and the cycle begins again.


Each time the stream life cycle repeats itself another layer of organic soil is added to the bottom of the valley. The valley slowly fills and the flat area at the bottom widens. Research is sparse, but it seems likely that parts of the bottomland in North America was created, or at least added to, by the efforts of the generations of beavers that lived there. [30]


Humans sometimes build structures similar to beaver dams in streams, either to get the benefits of beaver dams in places without beavers, or to encourage beavers to settle in a particular area.[31] These are often called "beaver dam analogs" (BDA) although other names are also used.[32] When the goal is to attract beavers, sometimes the site is unsuitable in its present condition, such as being too eroded for beavers to build a dam in their usual way. BDA builders may use construction techniques beyond the beaver's capabilities, such as driving wooden posts into the stream bed to brace horizontal branches that would otherwise be washed away. The hope is that beavers who wander by or are brought in will choose to live there and take over construction and maintenance of the dam.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Baker, B.W.; Hill, E.P. (2003). Feldhammer; Thompson; Chapman (eds.). "Beaver (Castor canadensis)" (PDF). Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management, and Conservation (Second ed.). Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press: 288–310. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2020-01-23. Retrieved 2020-03-08 – via USDA APHIS.
  2. ^ "Comparative Mammalian Brain Collections: North American beaver (Castor canadensis)". neurosciencelibrary.org. Archived from the original on 2016-10-05. Retrieved 2020-03-08.
  3. ^ a b c Fall, S. (2007). "Beaver pictures & facts". Archived from the original on August 11, 2013. Retrieved September 2, 2013.
  4. ^ Abbott, Matthew; Fultz, Brandon; Wilson, Jon; Nicholson, Jody; Black, Matt; Thomas, Adam; Kot, Amanda; Burrows, Mallory; Schaffer, Benton; Benson, David (2012-01-01). "Beaver-Dredged Canals and their Spacial Relationship to Beaver-Cut Stumps". Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science. 121 (2). Archived from the original on 2020-05-30. Retrieved 2020-03-08.
  5. ^ "15 remarkable animals that use tools". Mother Nature Network. Archived from the original on September 11, 2013. Retrieved September 3, 2013.
  6. ^ "World's biggest beaver dam discovered in northern Canada". phys.org. Retrieved 2020-03-08.
  7. ^ Grudzinski, Bartosz P.; Cummins, Hays; Vang, Teng Keng (2019-09-15). "Beaver canals and their environmental effects". Progress in Physical Geography: Earth and Environment. 44 (2): 189–211. doi:10.1177/0309133319873116. ISSN 0309-1333. S2CID 204257682.
  8. ^ "World's Largest Beaver Dam". Archived from the original on 5 May 2023. Retrieved 8 October 2023.
  9. ^ Thie, J. "Exploring beaver habitat and distribution with Google Earth: The longest beaver dam in the World". Archived from the original on September 16, 2013. Retrieved September 2, 2013.
  10. ^ Strege, David. "Explorer first to reach world's largest beaver dam". Archived from the original on 24 September 2014. Retrieved 24 September 2014.
  11. ^ "About beavers". Beavers: Wetlands and Wildlife. Archived from the original on August 13, 2013. Retrieved September 3, 2013.
  12. ^ Kemp, P.S., Worthington, T.A., Langford, E.L., Tree, A.R.J. and Gaywood, M.J., (2012). "Qualitative and quantitative effects of reintroduced beavers on stream fish". Fish and Fisheries, 13(2): 158–181 doi:10.1111/j.1467-2979.2011.00421.x
  13. ^ "Beavers cut flooding and pollution and boost wildlife populations". The Guardian. 2020-02-17. Retrieved 2021-05-31.
  14. ^ "River Otter Beaver Trial | University of Exeter". www.exeter.ac.uk. Retrieved 2021-05-31.
  15. ^ Karran, Daniel J.; Westbrook, Cherie J.; Bedard‐Haughn, Angela (2018). "Beaver-mediated water table dynamics in a Rocky Mountain fen". Ecohydrology. 11 (2): e1923. doi:10.1002/eco.1923. ISSN 1936-0592. S2CID 133775598.
  16. ^ "Beavers do 'dam' good work cleaning water". Science Daily. University of Exeter. 2018-05-19. Retrieved 2021-07-09.
  17. ^ Fields, Scott (2004). "Global Nitrogen: Cycling out of Control". Environmental Health Perspectives. 112 (10): A556–A563. doi:10.1289/ehp.112-a556. PMC 1247398. PMID 15238298.
  18. ^ Lazar, Julia; Addy, Kelly; Gold, Arthur; Groffman, Peter; McKinney, Richard; Kellogg, Dorothy (16 September 2015). "Beaver Ponds: Resurgent Nitrogen Sinks for Rural Watersheds in the Northeastern United States". Journal of Environmental Quality. 44 (5): 1684–1693. doi:10.2134/jeq2014.12.0540. PMID 26436285.
  19. ^ Grannes, S.G. (2008). "Beaver dam information site". Archived from the original on September 12, 2013. Retrieved August 30, 2013.
  20. ^ "Beavers". nwcouncil.org. Archived from the original on 14 November 2012. Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  21. ^ "When Beaver met Salmon: how fish-friendly flow devices keep their relationship moving forward". WWF.CA. 7 April 2021.
  22. ^ Smith, Joseph M.; Mather, Martha E. (July 2013). "Beaver dams maintain fish biodiversity by increasing habitat heterogeneity throughout a low-gradient stream network". Freshwater Biology. 58 (7): 1523–1538. doi:10.1111/fwb.12153.
  23. ^ "Riverscapes Restoration Design Manual". lowtechpbr.restoration.usu.edu.
  24. ^ "wildlifeextra.com – wildlifeextra Resources and Information". www.wildlifeextra.com. Archived from the original on 20 December 2016. Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  25. ^ "Beavers Helping Frogs And Toads Survive". Science Daily. January 11, 2007. Archived from the original on June 10, 2015.
  26. ^ "Beavers: Dam Good For Songbirds". Science Daily. October 9, 2008. Archived from the original on May 30, 2017.
  27. ^ Nummi, Petri; Suontakanen, Eeva-Maria; Holopainen, Sari; Väänänen, Veli-Matti (2019). "The effect of beaver facilitation on Common Teal: pairs and broods respond differently at the patch and landscape scales". Ibis. 161 (2): 301–309. doi:10.1111/ibi.12626. hdl:10138/302629. ISSN 1474-919X. S2CID 90166178.
  28. ^ Pollock, Michael M.; Morgan Heim; Danielle Werner (2003). "Hydrologic and geomorphic effects of beaver dams and their influence on fishes" (PDF). American Fisheries Society Symposium. 37: 213–233. Retrieved Feb 20, 2016.
  29. ^ a b Milman, Oliver (January 4, 2022). "Dam it: beavers head north to the Arctic as tundra continues to heat up". The Guardian. Archived from the original on January 4, 2022.
  30. ^ Levine, Rebekah; Meyer, Grant (2019-05-31). "Beaver-generated disturbance extends beyond active dam sites to enhance stream morphodynamics and riparian plant recruitment". Scientific Reports. 9 (1): 8124. Bibcode:2019NatSR...9.8124L. doi:10.1038/s41598-019-44381-2. PMC 6544642. PMID 31148552.
  31. ^ Backhouse, Frances (2021). Beavers - Radical Rodents and Ecosystem Engineers. Orca Book Publishers. pp. 81, 100–103. ISBN 9781459824690.
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