Wildlife / Beavers: The original environmental engineers

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The best time to see beavers is at dusk on a summer evening. And the best place is on quiet water from the seat of a kayak. Wildlife usually ignores me when I glide silently and low on the water. Perhaps people are less threatening and more a part of the landscape in a kayak than when upright on land.

I remember one evening on Chapman Lake in Warren County. It was getting dark, and my wife and I were paddling back to the parking lot. About 20 feet ahead, a beaver broke the surface of the water. It seemed unaware of us, then "smack!" A loud splash broke the evening stillness.

The beaver slapped its broad, flat tail on the surface of the water, then dove for cover. About two minutes later it resurfaced, slapped another alarm and submerged. We took the hint and called it a day.

Beavers, the largest rodent in North America, are perfectly suited to a semi-aquatic lifestyle. Adult beavers weigh 25 to 60 pounds and are protected by dense, waterproof fur.

Transparent inner eyelids, called nictitating membranes, permit clear underwater vision. Muscular valves close the ears, nose and mouth while underwater, and their lips close behind huge chisel-like teeth so they can gnaw while submerged. Large lungs permit beavers to remain submerged up to 15 minutes. Finally, the beaver's flat tail stores fat, serves as a rudder while swimming and functions as a communication device.

Furthermore, beavers are consummate environmental engineers. They build dams to create ponds that provide safe haven from predators and create habitat for many other aquatic creatures. Everything from brook trout and dragonflies to wood ducks and prothonotary warblers use wetlands created by beavers.

Beavers also helped early explorers open the western front of North America. Trappers in search of beaver pelts were first to penetrate beyond the Great Plains. Settlers followed closely in their tracks. The utility, beauty and warmth of beaver skins molded early American fashion. And the fur trade drove the economies of the towns and trading posts on the western frontier of an emerging nation.

Biologist, author, and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 8-10 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 WVLY-AM (Wheeling) and online at www.wvly.net. He can be reached at www.drshalaway.com, sshalaway@aol.com and 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, W.Va., 26033.

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