The Eurasian beaver or European beaver (Castor fiber) is a species of beaver which was once widespread in Eurasia. It was hunted to near-extinction for both its fur and castoreum; and by 1900, only 1200 beavers survived in eight relict populations in Europe and Asia. Reintroduced through much of its former range, it now occurs from Great Britain to China and Mongolia, although it is absent from Portugal, the southern Balkans, and the Middle East.
|Approximate current range of the Eurasian beaver|
The fur colour of Eurasian beavers varies geographically. Light, chestnut-rust is the dominant colour in Belarus. In Russia, the beavers of the Sozh River basin are predominantly blackish brown, while beavers in the Voronezh Reserve are equally distributed between brown and blackish-brown.
Eurasian beavers are one of the largest living species of rodents and are the largest rodent native to Eurasia. They weigh around 11–30 kg (24–66 lb). In Norway, adult males average 21.5 kg (47 lb) while females average 23.1 kg (51 lb), while another study found adults from the same country to average 18.4 kg (41 lb). By the average weights known, the Eurasian beaver appears to be the world's second heaviest rodent behind the capybara, but averaging slightly larger and heavier than the North American beaver. While the largest specimen confirmed on record weighed 31.7 kg (70 lb), the Smithsonian has reported that this species can exceptionally exceed 40 kg (88 lb). Typically, the head-and-body length is 80–100 cm (31–39 in) and the tail length is 25–50 cm (9.8–19.7 in).
Differences from North American beaverEdit
Although the Eurasian beaver appears superficially similar to the North American beaver, there are several important differences, chief among these being that the North American beaver has 40 chromosomes, while the Eurasian beaver has 48. The two species are not genetically compatible: After more than 27 attempts in Russia to hybridise the two species, the result was one stillborn kit that was bred from the pairing of a male North American beaver and a female Eurasian beaver. The difference in chromosome count makes interspecific breeding unlikely in areas where the two species' ranges overlap.
The Eurasian beaver has a larger, less rounded head; a longer, narrower muzzle. The Eurasian beaver also has longer nasal bones, with the widest point being at the end of the snout; in the case of the North American beaver, the widest point is at the middle of the snout. The Eurasian beaver has a triangular nasal opening, unlike those of the North American beavers, which are square. Furthermore, the foramen magnum is rounded in the Eurasian beaver, but triangular in the North American beaver.
The Eurasian beaver has a narrower, less oval-shaped tail; and shorter shin bones, making it less capable of bipedal locomotion than the North American species. The anal glands of the Eurasian beaver are larger, and thin-walled, with a large internal volume, relative to that of the North American beaver.
The guard hairs of the Eurasian beaver have longer hollow medullae at their tips. There is also a difference in the frequency of fur colours: 66% of Eurasian beavers overall have beige or pale brown fur, 20% have reddish brown, nearly 8% are brown, and only 4% have blackish coats; among North American beavers, 50% have pale brown fur, 25% are reddish brown, 20% are brown, and 6% are blackish.
Subspecies of Eurasian beaverEdit
Historically, eight subspecies of Castor fiber were described, one for each of the eight 19th– to 20th-century refugia where the species never became extinct. The basis of the differentiation was morphological, largely based on very small differences in cranial morphology, but has been recently refuted based on genetic studies. In 2005, Durka et al. showed that only two evolutionarily significant units exist based on mitochondrial DNA studies, a western phylogroup (C. f. gallicus, C. f. albicus, and C. f. fiber) and an eastern phylogroup (C. f. ssp., C. f. tuvinicus, C. f. pohlei, and C. f. birulai). In addition, Ducroz et al. found that even in the more genetically diverse eastern phylogroup, the degree of genetic divergence was below thresholds considered sufficient for subspecies differentiation.
Eurasian beavers have one litter per year, coming into estrus for only 12 to 24 hours, between late December and May, but peaking in January. Unlike most other rodents, beaver pairs are monogamous, staying together for multiple breeding seasons. Gestation averages 107 days and they average three kits per litter with a range of two to six kits. Most beavers do not reproduce until they are three years of age, but about 20% of two-year-old females reproduce.
The Eurasian beaver is recovering from near extinction, after depredation by humans for its fur and for castoreum, a secretion of its scent gland believed to have medicinal properties. The estimated population was only 1,200 by the early 20th century. In many European nations, the beaver became extinct, but reintroduction and protection has led to gradual recovery to about 639,000 individuals by 2003. Milishnikov found in genetic studies that beaver likely survived east of the Urals from a 19th-century population as low as 300 animals, and that factors contributing to their survival include their ability to maintain sufficient genetic diversity to recover from a population as low as three individuals, and that beavers are monogamous and select mates that are genetically different from themselves. About 83% of Eurasian beavers live in the former Soviet Union due to reintroductions, but the result is that beavers in Mongolia or Siberia do not appear significantly genetically different from samples from the European part of Russia, despite the great geographical distance.
In China, a few hundred beavers (castor fiber birulai) are known to live in the basin of the Ulungur River, near the Mongolian border. The Bulgan Beaver Nature Reserve (Chinese: 布尔根河河狸自然保护区; ) was established in 1980 to protect the creatures.
In France, the Eurasian beaver was almost wiped out, but a small population survived on the Rhône, near Lyon, from where it has both naturally dispersed and been reintroduced to other parts of the country. The French population of beavers was estimated to be 10,000-12,000 individuals in 2009.
In Germany, beavers had become close to extinct in the 19th century. Smaller populations survived along the Elbe and spread into Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and Saxony after being protected. Beavers in Germany number up to 25,000 all across the country, even appearing in many urban areas. The largest beaver populations are found in eastern Germany (6,000, descendants of the Elbe beavers), and in Bavaria along the Danube and its tributaries. After a resettlement programme started in 1966, their number in Bavaria is estimated to be around 14,000.
In Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, subfossil evidence of beavers extends down to the floodplains of the Tigris-Euphrates basin, and a carved stone stela dating between 1,000 and 800 BC in the Tell Halaf archaeological site along the Khabur River (a Euphrates tributary) in northeastern Syria depicts a beaver. Although accounts of 19th-century European visitors to the Middle East appear to confuse beavers with otters, a 20th-century report of beavers by Hans Kummerlöwe in the Ceyhan River drainage of southern Turkey includes the diagnostic red incisor teeth, flat, scaly tail, and presence of gnawed willow stems. According to the Encyclopaedia Iranica, early Iranian Avestan and Pahlavi, and later Islamic literature, all reveal different words for otter and beaver, and castoreum was highly valued. Johannes Ludwijk Schlimmer, a noted Dutch physician in 19th-century Iran reported beavers below the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates in small numbers, along the bank of the Shatt al-Arab in the provinces of Shushtar and Dezful." Austen Layard, the British explorer of Assyrian ruins, notably Babylon and Nineveh, reported finding beavers during his visit to the Kabur River in Syria the 1850s, but noted they were being rapidly hunted to extirpation. Beavers were specifically sacred to Zoroastrianism (which also revered otters), and there were laws in place for unlawful killing of these animals.
Beavers were reintroduced in the Netherlands in 1988 after being completely exterminated in the 19th century. After its reintroduction in the Biesbosch, the Dutch population has spread considerably (supported by additional reintroductions), and can now be found in the Biesbosch and surrounding areas, along the Meuse in Limburg, and in the Gelderse Poort and Oostvaardersplassen. In 2012, the population was estimated to be about 600 animals and could easily grow to 7000 in 20 years' time. According to the Mammal Society and the Dutch Water Board, this will cause a threat to the river dikes. The main problem is that beavers excavate corridors and caves in dikes, thereby undermining the stability of the dike, just as the muskrat and the coypu do. If problems become unmanageable, as local administrators in Limburg fear, the beaver will be captured again.
As of 2014 population of beaver in Poland reached 100,000 animals and was still growing. After major flooding in Poland in May and June 2010, the local authorities of Konin in central Poland held beavers responsible for causing the flooding and demanded the culling of 150 beavers.
In Romania, beavers became extinct in 1824, but were reintroduced in 1998 along the Olt River, spreading to other rivers in Covasna County. In 2014, the animals were confirmed to have reached the Danube Delta.
In the former Soviet Union, almost 17,000 beavers were translocated from 1927 to 2004, of which 12,000 were to Russia, and the remainder to the Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, and Kazakhstan. They are now common in Estonia and Latvia.
In Spain, nongovernment sanctioned reintroduction around 2003 has resulted in tell-tale beaver signs documented on a 60-km stretch on the lower course of the Aragon River and the area adjoining the Ebro River in Aragon, Spain.
In Greece beaver was first described by Aristotle (4th century BCE) under the name Λάταξ/Latax. He wrote that it is wider than the otter, with strong teeth and that it gets often in the night to the river banks to cut down trees with these teeth. Remains from late Roman, early Byzantine periods and from the late 18th, early 19th century, have been found in Nicopolis. Ιt remains unclear when they vanished from Kastoria which was possibly named after Kastor/Castor which means beaver, but in 18th century CE the locals were still hunting them for their fur. In 19th CE century they were still reported from Alpheius in the Peloponnese and from Mesolongi (1839).
The recently resurgent beaver population in Eurasia has resulted in increases in human-beaver encounters. Indeed, in May 2013, a Belarusian fisherman died after being bitten several times by a beaver, severing an artery in his leg and causing him to bleed to death.
In Sweden, the beaver had been hunted to extinction by around 1870. Between 1922 and 1939, about 80 individuals were imported from Norway and introduced to 19 separate sites within the country. Beavers reintroduced to central Norway's Ingdalselva River watershed on the Agdenes peninsula, Sør-Trøndelag County in 1968-1969, were recently studied. The area is hilly to mountainous with many small watersheds. Rivers are usually too steep along most of their length for beaver colonisation, so that suitable habitat is scattered, with rarely room for more than one territory in a habitat patch. While widespread signs of vagrant beavers were found, spread as a breeding animal was slowed by watershed divides in the hilly terrain. Colonisation of all suitable sites within a watershed once the species was established was rapid. Some spread could only be plausibly explained by assuming travel though sheltered sea water in fjords
In Denmark, the beaver was reintroduced to the wild in western Jutland in 1999 and in Arresø, northern Zealand, in 2009 after it was hunted to extinction around 1000 CE. The reintroduced beavers were caught in the river Elbe in Germany. As of 2013[update], the Danish population of beavers was estimated to be roughly 185 individuals.
Some Eurasian beavers are present in Finland, but most of the Finnish population is a released population of C. canadensis, the North American species. (These animals were imported to Finland in 1937, when it was not yet known that C. canadensis was a different species from the Eurasian beaver.)
The beaver became extinct in Great Britain in the 16th century: Giraldus Cambrensis reported in 1188 (Itinerarium ii.iii) that it was to be found only in the Teifi in Wales and in one river in Scotland, though his observations are clearly secondhand. The last reference to beavers in England dates to 1526. About the same time, Hector Boece wrote that they were still common in parts of Scotland, especially around Loch Ness.
As a former British species, there is interest in reintroducing beavers to the wild across Britain. It has been suggested that beaver dams could retain water in upland areas, reducing flood volumes and creating new habitats for wildlife.
Currently, beaver populations are found in a number of large enclosures in wildlife parks, as well as free-living populations around the River Tay and Knapdale areas in Scotland. The Knapdale population was deliberately released by the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), while the other populations are of unknown origin. Sixteen beaver were released in Knapdale forest, mid-Argyll, between 2009 and 2014. In November 2016 the Scottish government announced that the beaver populations in Knapdale and Tayside would be allowed to remain and naturally expand. This is the first successful reintroduction of any wild mammal to the United Kingdom.
A population of Eurasian beaver of unknown origin has been present on the River Otter in Devon, in south-west England since 2008, with an additional pair released to increase genetic diversity by the Devon Wildlife Trust in 2016. As part of a scientific study, a pair of Eurasian beaver were released in 2011 by the Devon Wildlife Trust at a secret location near Dartmoor, in southern Devon, England. The thirteen beaver pond system now in place has a dramatic impact on flooding, with the ponds releasing downpours over days to weeks instead of hours.
In 2001, the Kent Wildlife Trust with the Wildwood Trust and Natural England imported two families of Eurasian beavers from Norway to manage a wetland nature reserve. This project pioneered the use of beavers as a wildlife conservation tool in the UK. The success of this project has provided the inspiration behind other projects in Gloucestershire and Argyll. The Kent beaver colony lives in a 130-acre (0.53 km2) fenced enclosure at the wetland of Ham Fen. Subsequently, the population has been supplemented in 2005 and 2008. The beavers continue to help restore the wetland by rehydrating the soils. Six Eurasian beavers were released in 2005 into a fenced lakeside area in Gloucestershire. In 2007, a specially selected group of four Bavarian beavers was released into a fenced enclosure in the Martin Mere nature reserve in Lancashire. The beavers hopefully will form a permanent colony, and the younger pair will be transferred to another location when the adults begin breeding again. The progress of the group will be followed as part of the BBC's Autumnwatch television series. On November 19, 2011, a pair of beaver sisters was released into a 2.5-acre (1 ha) enclosure at Blaeneinion, Furnace, Mid Wales. A colony of beavers is also established in a large enclosure at Bamff, Perthshire.
In June 2017, a pair of beavers (one male and one female, with hopes that they would become a breeding pair) were released into a secured area in Cornwall near Ladock. This was called The Beaver Project, and was funded through a very successful crowdfunded campaign led by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust. The aims of this project are split into several objectives; hydrology, water quality, impact on fish, ecology, and observation of the public perception of beaver reintroduction. As written on the Cornwall Wildlife Trust website: "The impacts of the beavers on water quantity and quality are being monitored by University of Exeter researchers who have had equipment on site for well over a year prior to the release of beavers. Some biodiversity monitoring is also being carried out including habitats, amphibians, bats, some invertebrate groups and fish. The project fits in scale between the fenced Devon trial and the River Otter Beaver Project. The potential to alleviate flooding is particularly important since the site is situated upstream of Ladock, a village increasingly affected by flooding." There have been video updates and more since then, and there have recently been hopes that the pair have successfully bred pups, although this is yet to be confirmed.
On 24 July 2018 two Eurasian beavers were released into a fenced area 6.5 hectares (16 acres) in size surrounding Greathough Brook near Lydbrook in the Forest of Dean. The UK Government hopes that the presence of the beavers on Forestry Commission land will help to alleviate flooding in a natural way as the animals will construct dams and ponds, slowing the flow of water in the area. The village of Lydbrook was badly affected by flooding in 2012.
The Environment Secretary Michael Gove, who attended the release, said:
"The beaver has a special place in English heritage and the Forest of Dean. This release is a fantastic opportunity to develop our understanding of the potential impacts of reintroductions and help this iconic species, 400 years after it was driven to extinction."
Reintroduction into England and WalesEdit
A group of three beavers was spotted on the River Otter in Devon in 2013, apparently successfully bearing three kits the next year. Following concern from local landowners and anglers, as well as farmers worrying that the beavers could carry disease, the government announced that it would capture the beavers and place them in a zoo or wildlife park. A sport-fishing industry lobbyist group, the Angling Trust, said, "it would be irresponsible even to consider re-introducing this species into the wild without first restoring our rivers to good health." These actions were protested by local residents and campaign groups, with environmental journalist George Monbiot describing the government and anglers as 'control freaks': "I'm an angler, and the Angling Trust does not represent me on this issue...most anglers, in my experience, have a powerful connection with nature. The chance of seeing remarkable wild animals while waiting quietly on the riverbank is a major part of why we do it." On 28 January 2015, Natural England declared that the beavers would be allowed to remain on condition that they were free of disease and of Eurasian descent. These conditions were found to be met on 23 March 2015, following the capture and testing of five of the beavers. DNA testing showed that the animals were the once-native Eurasian beaver, and none of the beavers was found to be infected with Echinococcus multilocularis, tularaemia, or bovine TB. On 24 June 2015, video footage from local filmmaker Tom Buckley was featured on the BBC news website showing one of the wild Devon females with two live young.
A study has been undertaken on the feasibility and desirability of a reintroduction of beavers to Wales by a partnership including the Wildlife Trusts, Countryside Council for Wales, Peoples Trust for Endangered Species, Environment Agency Wales, Wild Europe, and Forestry Commission Wales, with additional funding from Welsh Power Ltd. The resulting reports were published in 2012 with the launch of the Welsh Beaver Project, which is a partnership led by the Wildlife in Wales, and are downloadable from www.welshbeaverproject.org.[needs update] A 2009 report by Natural England, the government’s conservation body, and the People's Trust for Endangered Species recommended that beavers be reintroduced to the wild in England. This goal was realised in November 2016, when beavers were recognised as a British native species.
Reintroduction into ScotlandEdit
The first sustained and significant population of wild-living beavers in the United Kingdom became established on the river Tay catchment in Scotland as early as 2001, and spread widely in the catchment, numbering from 20 to 100 individuals. Because these beavers were either escapees from any of several nearby sites with captive beavers, or illegal releases, Scottish Natural Heritage initially planned to remove the Tayside beavers in late 2010. Proponents of the beavers argued that no reason existed to believe that they were of "wrong" genetic stock, and that they should be permitted to remain. One beavers was trapped by Scottish Natural Heritage on the River Ericht in Blairgowrie, Perthshire, in early December 2010, and was held in captivity in the Edinburgh Zoo. In March 2012 the Scottish Government reversed the decision to remove beavers from the Tay, pending the outcome of studies into the suitability of re-introduction.
In 2005, the Scottish government had turned down a licence application for unfenced reintroduction, however, in late 2007, a further application was made by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Scottish Wildlife Trust and Forestry Commission Scotland for a release project in Knapdale, Argyll. This application, termed the Scottish Beaver Trial, was accepted, and the first beavers were released on 29 May 2009 after a 400-year absence, with further releases in 2010. In August 2010, at least two kits, estimated to be eight weeks old and belonging to different family groups, were seen in Knapdale Forest in Argyll. Alongside the trial, the pre-existing population of beavers along the Tay was monitored and assessed.
Following receipt of the results of the Scottish Beaver Trial, in November 2016 the Scottish Government announced that beavers could remain permanently, and would be given protected status as a native species within Scotland. Beavers will be allowed to extend their range naturally from Knapdale and the River Tay, however to aid this process and improve the health and resilience of the population a further 28 beavers will be released in Knapdale between 2017 and 2020. A survey of beaver numbers during the winter of 2017-18 estimated that the Tayside population had increased to between 300-550 beavers, with beavers now also present in the catchment of the River Forth, and the Trossachs area.
Beaver are a keystone species helping support the ecosystem of which they are a part. They create wetlands, which increase biodiversity and provide habitat for many rare species such as water voles, otters, and water shrews. They coppice waterside trees and shrubs so that they regrow as dense shrubs which provide cover for birds and other animals. Beaver dams trap sediment and improve water quality, and recharge groundwater tables and increase cover and forage for trout and salmon. A recent study in Poland found that beavers increased the abundance and diversity of bats, apparently because they create gaps in forest cover, making it easier for bats to navigate.
Effects on fishEdit
Beaver ponds have been shown to have a beneficial effect on trout and salmon populations; in fact, many authors believe that the decline of salmonid fishes is related to the decline in beaver populations. A study of small streams in Sweden found that brown trout in beaver ponds were larger than those in riffle sections, and that beaver ponds provide habitat for larger trout in small streams during periods of drought. These findings are similar to several studies of beaver effects on fish in North America. Brook trout, coho, and sockeye salmon were significantly larger in beaver ponds than those in unimpounded stream sections in Colorado and Alaska. In addition, research in the Stillaguamish River basin in Washington found that extensive loss of beaver ponds resulted in an 89% reduction in coho salmon smolt summer production and an almost equally detrimental 86% reduction in critical winter habitat carrying capacity. Migration of adult Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) may be limited by beaver dams during periods of low stream flows, but the presence of juveniles upstream from the dams suggests that the dams are penetrated by parr. Downstream migration of Atlantic salmon smolts was similarly unaffected by beaver dams, even in periods of low flows. Two-year-old Atlantic salmon parr in beaver ponds in eastern Canada showed faster summer growth in length and mass and were in better condition than parr upstream or downstream from the pond. The importance of winter habitat to salmonids afforded by beaver ponds may be especially important (and underappreciated) in streams without deep pools or where ice cover makes contact with the bottom of shallow streams. A 2003 study showed that Atlantic salmon and sea trout (S. trutta morpha trutta) spawning in the Numedalslågen River and 51 of its tributaries in southeastern Norway were unhindered by beaver. In Norway, beaver dams are considered beneficial for brown and sea trout populations (these are potamodromous and anadromous forms of the same species). There, beaver ponds produce increased food for young fish and provide refuges for large adults heading upstream to spawn.
Effect on water qualityEdit
The misnomer ‘beaver fever’ was invented by the American press in the 1970s after an outbreak of Giardia lamblia, which causes giardiasis, was blamed on beavers. However, the outbreak area was also frequented by humans, who are generally the primary source of contamination of waters. In addition, many animals and birds carry this parasite. Giardiasis affects humans in southeastern Norway, but a recent study found no Giardia in the beavers there. Recent concerns point to domestic animals as a significant vector of Giardia, with young calves in dairy herds testing as high as 100% positive for Giardia. New Zealand has Giardia but no beavers. In a 1995 paper recommending reintroduction of beaver to Great Britain, MacDonald stated that the only new diseases that beaver might convey to that country's birds and mammals, are rabies and tularemia - both diseases that should be preventable by statutory quarantine procedures and prophylactic treatment for tularemia.
In addition, fecal coliform and streptococci bacteria excreted into streams by grazing cattle have been shown to be reduced by beaver ponds, where the bacteria are trapped in bottom sediments.
The Eurasian beaver Castor fiber was once widespread in Europe and Asia but by the beginning of the 20th century both the numbers and range of the species had been drastically diminished, mainly due to hunting. At this time, the global population was estimated to be around 1,200 individuals, living in eight separate sub-populations. In 2008, however, the ICUN granted the Eurasian Beaver a status of least concern, with the justification that the species had recovered sufficiently with the help of global conservation programmes. Currently the largest numbers can be found across Europe, where reintroductions have been successful in 25 countries and conservation efforts are ongoing. However, populations in Asia remain small and fragmented, and are under considerable threat.
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