Ecosystem Engineers

When you think “engineer” what comes to your mind? Maybe you picture someone building or maintaining a machine, or someone who is taking classes for an engineering major in college. Now think of the term “ecosystem engineer”. What comes to mind now? 

If you thought of a beaver, congratulations! You have the makings of a Naturalist. Beavers are ecosystem engineers, which means that they change and manipulate their environment to suit  their needs. Not only do they change their surroundings to benefit them, they also have many adaptations that give them an advantage in their habitat.

Think about where a beaver lives. Mainly in the water, right? This means that a beaver needs to be a really good swimmer. One thing that helps with that is a beaver’s webbed feet. Beavers have a thick layer of skin between their fingers and toes that act like paddles to help them swim quickly and efficiently. Beavers also have a very thick tail that is somewhat scaly and virtually hairless that they use as an extra fin that helps them swim too. Their tail also acts as a security system. If a beaver senses that danger is near, they will smack their tail on the top of the water making a loud slapping sound to warn others that danger is near. Once they sound the alarm, all the beavers in the vicinity will dive underwater until the danger has passed.

So beavers are adapted to be great swimmers. So what? Lots of things are. In my opinion, what really makes the beavers stand out from the crowd are their teeth. Teeth are a beaver’s most valuable tool. They use their teeth to fell trees to build for their dams and lodges, as well as to eat. If an animal is going to use their teeth to chop down trees, those teeth would need to be very strong, and super sharp. Luckily, beavers have this covered. If you have ever seen a beaver’s teeth, you’ll notice that they are a gross orange color. This isn’t just from lack of brushing. Their teeth are orange because they have iron in the enamel, which makes their teeth incredibly strong and resistant to wear and tear. However, that doesn’t mean that their teeth will never wear down. It’s inevitable! To help with this issue, a beaver’s teeth will grow continuously. So they never have to worry about losing them! In addition to having strong teeth, beavers also have a self-sharpening feature in their teeth. While the front of their teeth are as strong as iron, The back of their teeth are much softer and prone to chipping. So when the back part of their teeth chip off and the front part remains, it creates a sharp edge that allows them to chew easily through bark. 

The term “ecosystem engineer” is defined as any organism that creates, significantly modifies, or maintains or destroys a habitat. By creating dams, lodges and areas of still water where there would normally be running water, beavers certainly fit the bill.

Now go out and build something.

Written by Naturalist Annie