Wed. Nov 29th, 2023

Today, we join discovery and marketing specialist Dave Sproule to discuss the ecological and cultural importance of the beaver, which became Canada’s official symbol in 1975.

We all know that beavers are workers. They build dams, canals, and sturdy houses called huts, which are warm in winter. They repair all those dams and gather enough food to survive the long northern winters.

We know that beavers adapt well to the Canadian environment. Beavers are amphibians (more comfortable in water than on land), with webbed hind legs, nostrils that can close, a transparent third eyelid that protects the eye when underwater, and a large, flat tail that acts as a rudder while swimming.

However, the most important reason to celebrate the beaver is that it built Canada, shaping both its historical and ecological landscape.

Shaping history

There are two species of beaver in the world: the North American beaver (Canadian beaver) and the Eurasian beaver (castor fiber). At the beginning of the 17th century, beavers in Europe were becoming scarce.

beaver swimming

The waterproof fur that kept the beaver dry and warm while swimming underwater was also used to make waterproof hats. In those days there were no umbrellas and waterproof clothing had to be waxed or oiled. As a result, waterproof hats made from the felt of the inner layer of beaver pelts became very popular.

When French explorers learned that North America was home to abundant beavers with thicker fur than those in Europe, they quickly established trading posts and began a fur trade with indigenous peoples.

map of 1600This map was published in 1688, around the time the French wooden runner He began to reimagine the indigenous birch bark canoe into enormous 10 meter long traveling canoes, built to transport tons of trade goods and furs from the depths of the North American interior. He shows the geographical discoveries of that time, including the Mississippi River, fueled by the fur trade.

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Trading quickly became extremely competitive. Wars broke out over hunting grounds, first in the mid-17th century between the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and Wendat (Ferrets), known as the “Beaver Wars.” A few decades later, a trade-fueled war broke out between the French and English in the waters of Hudson Bay.

And yet, the demand for fur continued to grow. What was a practical item of clothing (a waterproof hat that kept the head and neck dry) also became a fashion accessory.

People needed to have several hats and wanted the latest style. Aristocrats, ladies, merchants, soldiers and sailors had their own styles.

map of 1700This map shows the Great Lakes region in the early 18th century. The dark green spots are beaver hunt or “beaver hunting grounds”

At the height of the trade in the 1780s, two major fur companies faced each other: the Hudson’s Bay Company, founded in 1670, and the upstart North West Company, run by a group of independent traders in Montreal. These “Canadians,” as the HBC men called them, established a series of trading posts that crossed the continent, outstripping the old HBCs.

Trapping accelerated and by the 1820s the beaver had almost disappeared from Ontario. The fur trade declined in the mid-19th century and felt hats began to be replaced by silk hats.

beaver depletion map

The fur trade built today’s Canada

Economically, it was the most important industry for centuries; Territorially, the trading posts established a Canadian presence as far as the Pacific Ocean, in direct competition with American fur traders and the territorial ambitions of the United States. Without the fur trade, Canada might not exist.

But the beaver paid the cost.

Shaping the ecological landscape

The fur trade eliminated beavers from much of their range in North America (the beaver is estimated to have declined from about 400 million in the 16th century to near extinction in the 1850s).

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The loss of beavers also meant a loss of biodiversity.

beaver pond

Biodiversity It is the variety and variability of life on earth. The beaver is a “keystone” species for biodiversity: the changes it makes to the landscape by building dams, cutting down trees and flooding valleys provide habitat for many other species.

painted turtlesThese Painted Turtles Enjoy the Slow Waters of a Beaver Pond

By designing its environment, the beaver transforms the monotony of the forest into a variety of habitats. Open the forest canopy by cutting down trees and letting in light; creates more “edge” along ponds and wetlands, increasing shrubs and other plants that are habitat for insects, birds and other wildlife.

yellow warblerThe Yellow Warbler is often found in “riparian habitat”: the grassy and shrubby habitat near the edge of lakes, rivers, and beaver wetlands.

Streams turned into ponds create more water for fish to swim in. Brook trout thrive in deeper water, where springs feed the pond and keep the environment cool in summer.

Beaver ponds provide slow-moving water for aquatic insects and other invertebrates, frogs, turtles, muskrats and mink.

As the variety of plants increases, waterfowl arrive. Ponds are safe places to nest and raise chicks. For example, the black duck relies on beaver ponds for 86% of its nesting habitat.

The loss of beavers in most of Ontario in the mid-19th century had a serious impact on biodiversity. The dams would have deteriorated and eventually collapsed.

Ponds and wetlands would have been emptied. Forests would have regrew in the openings the beavers had made, crowding into dry ponds and wetlands, shading grasses, sedges, shrubs and wildflowers, and diminishing the diversity of plants, birds and insects.

Aquatic habitat would be reduced to small, shaded streams, eliminating rich “edge” habitat along coastlines as well as warm shallows and cold depths.

beaver in Chutes PPThis beaver enjoys the water in Chutes Provincial Park

Since the end of the fur trade, beavers have been recolonizing their former territory. Current population estimates are between 6 and 12 million. They are again found throughout Ontario and biodiversity has gradually followed them.

Want to learn more? Read about how beavers adapt to Canadian winters.