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Beavers vs. Humans

CGS prof studies the socially monogamous mammals


These days, beavers are making a comeback—in numbers more than reputation. In fact, they are often viewed as a nuisance, causing millions of dollars in damage each year by chewing fences, trees, and decks. They build dams, which leads to flooding of homes, crops, and railroads.

The cause of this population boom? A declining interest in kill trapping, combined with laws promoting more humane trapping methods, are two likely contributing factors. In the five years after the passage of a 1996 ballot referendum restricting trapping in Massachusetts, the number of beavers in the commonwealth shot up, from 24,000 to 70,000.

Peter Busher has been studying beavers for four decades. A College of General Studies professor and chair of the Division of Natural Science & Mathematics, Busher was the first person to track the animals by tagging them with radio transmitters. He examines beaver population dynamics and behavior, including mating habits, birthrates, group structure, and how the animals migrate from one area to another. His findings could inform decisions about how communities respond to beaver activity and manage the animal’s populations, both in Massachusetts and across the country.

Peter Busher holding a beaver

Peter Busher uses wire mesh traps to catch beavers; he then transfers them to a denim bag like this one to obtain hair samples for DNA analysis. He believes the results will prove beavers are genetically monogamous. Photo by Macauley Mathieu-Busher

Busher says an influx of beavers in a community can raise alarms, causing heated discussions about whether trapping should be broadened to control the population. But he points out that some behaviors can be beneficial. Beaver dam building expands the wetlands, whose functions include filtering toxins from water, supporting biodiversity, and mitigating floods. (He notes that wetlands loss contributed to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.)

It’s important to understand how the animal’s population naturally develops, Busher says, and how its family dynamics work. Beavers are territorial, live in family groups, and are selective about which sites they inhabit permanently. These factors mean their populations spike when they move into a new area, but generally drop and stabilize over time.

Knowledge of beavers’ mating habits—which can vary based on their environment—could influence how communities manage the rodents and their nuisance activity. Although beavers are known to be among only 3 percent of mammals that are socially monogamous, raising their young exclusively with one partner, researchers do not know much about their pairing behavior. Do the parents also mate with other beavers and raise a mixed brood, or are they sexually exclusive? Busher wants to find out.

He believes genetically monogamous beaver populations—those that tend to mate with one partner—increase more slowly and may stay in an area longer. If one of these populations were removed because of nuisance activity, he says, the area would likely be free of beavers for a while. But if the population were more promiscuous, new beavers could move into the area at any time; communities would need to develop a long-term animal removal plan.

Busher is conducting his beaver mating research in the Quabbin Reservation in central Massachusetts. (The Quabbin Reservoir is Boston’s primary water supply.) The 150 to 300 beavers on the reservoir’s Prescott Peninsula are the nation’s longest studied population, he says. Getting hair samples for genetic analysis requires live trapping, which he describes as an art form. On any given afternoon, he’ll set wire-mesh clamshell-shaped traps half-submerged in waters that beavers inhabit. In the evening, he’ll transfer each beaver into a denim bag to take measurements and hair samples, check the animal’s gender, and tag its ear before releasing it. He then brings the samples back to CGS for analysis by his assistant, Caitlin Jacobs (CGS’15, SAR’17).

Beaver building dam

Although beavers have been known to cause property damage, their dam building expands wetlands, whose functions include filtering toxins from water, supporting biodiversity, and mitigating floods. Photo by Peter Busher

With undergraduate research funding from the CGS Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching & Learning, Jacobs has been researching and developing procedures to genetically analyze beaver hair samples since fall 2014. She is responsible for running the beaver hair through scientific processes that isolate and copy the DNA for sequencing by an outside lab. Jacobs compares the sequences to see which young are related to the male in the family group and which, if any, are not.

Busher believes the results of further samples will indicate that Prescott Peninsula beavers are genetically monogamous. Regardless, he hopes his work will help us learn to coexist with—and benefit from—beavers. After all, they were here first, ever since the retreat of ice sheets thousands of years ago created the wetlands. “We took their land,” he says. “We’re the ones who can change more than they can.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the summer 2015 issue of Collegian.

Julie Butters can be reached at jbutters@bu.edu.


2 Comments on Beavers vs. Humans

  • Jose Artigas on 12.01.2015 at 10:46 pm

    What a superb subject for BU Today. Beavers have long fascinated people because of their impressive engineering feats & complex social organization. Beavers are probably second only to humans in their ability to transform their environment (Earthworms & ants do a lot too, but their handiwork is harder to observe.) On the other hand, anyone who’s seen the damage elephants can inflict on vegetation might cast their vote for them. But beavers create & reshape their environments rather than simply mauling them. Hail to the flat-tailed builders of dams & lakes!

  • Logic Rules on 06.29.2016 at 8:10 am

    “Ward, what are Wally and the Beaver up to”
    “I don’t know June”
    “I hope they are not up to trouble with Eddie or Lumpy”

    for those who don’t remember

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