How Beavers Could Help Clean Up Polluted Waters Around the World

iStock.com/milehightraveler
iStock.com/milehightraveler

Beavers are a lot more impressive than you might think. These semiaquatic rodents can build dams as large as 2800 feet deep, thanks in part to their super sharp teeth and sturdy tails that keep them from tipping over while hauling heavy materials into the water. According to research from scientists at the UK-based University of Exeter, the animals could also potentially help clean up polluted waterways.

Professor Richard Brazier and his colleagues studied the water quality at the site of a fenced-in area in southwest England, where a family of captive beavers has been living since 2011. The water flowed from nearby fields to a local river, where it deposited sediment while passing through 13 dams that had been built by the beavers.

The reduced water flow—and the deep ponds that formed as a result of the dams—had a filtering effect. The beavers’ dams captured more than 100 tons of soil and other sediment that contained high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, both of which are bad for wildlife and human consumption.

The runoff problem is also twofold: The erosion of soil on agricultural land has both economic and environmental consequences. Scientists suggest that the reintroduction of the Eurasian beaver to rivers could help curb some of this damage. These “ecosystem engineers,” as the animals are called in the University of Exeter study, were believed to have been hunted to extinction in Britain by the 1500s. However, a colony was found in Scotland a decade ago, and there have been some efforts since then to release beaver populations into the wild.

"It is of serious concern that we observe such high rates of soil loss from agricultural land, which are well in excess of soil formation rates,” Brazier said in a statement. “However, we are heartened to discover that beaver dams can go a long way to mitigate this soil loss and also trap pollutants which lead to the degradation of our water bodies. Were beaver dams to be commonplace in the landscape we would no doubt see these effects delivering multiple benefits across whole ecosystems, as they do elsewhere around the world."

In a separate study from 2015, scientists at the University of Rhode Island determined that larger beaver ponds were able to remove up to 45 percent of nitrogen in the water that passed through them, while smaller ponds removed roughly 5 percent. The North American beaver was also on the brink of extinction in the 1800s, but these populations have since rebounded in Rhode Island and other parts of the continent.

Amazon's Best Black Friday Deals: Tech, Video Games, Kitchen Appliances, Clothing, and More

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Watch: In 1948, Idaho Officials Sent 76 Beavers Parachuting Into Idaho’s Wilderness

A young beaver with all four feet firmly on the ground.
A young beaver with all four feet firmly on the ground.
yrjö jyske, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When people started building up the area around Idaho’s Payette Lake after World War II, its original residents began interfering with irrigation and agricultural endeavors. They weren’t exactly staging an organized protest—they were just beavers doing what beavers do.

Nevertheless, officials at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game decided their best bet was to find a new home for the long-toothed locals. The surrounding wilderness provided plenty of options, but transportation was another issue entirely. Traversing the undeveloped, mountainous terrain would require both trucks and pack animals, and experts knew from past relocation efforts that beavers weren’t fond of either.

“Beavers cannot stand the direct heat of the sun unless they are in water,” department employee Elmo W. Heter explained in a 1950 report [PDF]. “Sometimes they refuse to eat. Older individuals often become dangerously belligerent ... Horses and mules become spooky and quarrelsome when loaded with a struggling, malodorous pair of live beavers.”

To keep Payette Lake’s beavers healthy and happy during the journey, their human handlers would need to find another method of travel. As Boise State Public Radio reports, that’s when Heter suggested making use of their leftover WWII parachutes.

Two beavers would sit inside a wooden box attached to a parachute, which could be dropped from an airplane between 500 and 800 feet above their new home in the Chamberlain Basin. The cables that fastened the box to the parachute would keep it shut during the flight, but they’d slacken enough for the beavers to open the box upon landing. After testing the operation with weights, Heter and his colleagues enlisted an older beaver named Geronimo for a few live trials.

“Poor fellow!” Heter wrote. “You may be sure that ‘Geronimo’ had a priority reservation on the first ship into the hinterland, and that three young females went with him.”

Once Geronimo had certified the safety of the mission, the team began migrating the whole beaver population. During the fall of 1948, a total of 76 beavers touched down in their new territory. It wasn’t without tragedy, though; one beaver fell to his death after a cable broke on his box. Overall, however, the venture was deemed much safer (and less expensive) than any trip on foot would have been. And when department officials checked in on the beavers a year later, they had already started improving their ecosystem.

“Beavers had built dams, constructed houses, stored up food, and were well on their way to producing colonies,” Heter wrote. As Idaho Fish and Game’s Steve Liebenthal told Boise State Public Radio, the area is now part of “the largest protected roadless forest” in the continental U.S.

You can watch the Idaho Fish and Game Commission’s full 14-minute documentary about the process below.

[h/t Boise State Public Radio]