Published: April 16, 2019 By


In February, Emily Fairfax (PhDGeol’19) made a 44-second video about beavers. To her suprise, the video blew up on twitter, with about 5,000 shares and 15,000 likes. Here, Fairfax explains what captivates her about wetlands and beavers, what she’s learned and why we all should see beavers in a positive light.

How did you get interested in beavers?

In elementary school [in Indiana], we had musicals about wetlands and we did field trips to wetlands and I always thought they were the greatest. Then in college I led wilderness trips up in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota with canoes. There’s tons of beaver dams up there. It was really impressive being so far out there and seeing these carefully engineered structures that were holding back water.

After college, I was working and I wasn’t a huge fan of the subject matter of my job. I was watching documentaries about wetlands, and I got to this one about beavers. All of my old interests resparked, and I was just, like, ‘I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna be a beaver researcher.’

How are you making the beaver research happen?

My adviser told me that if I won my own money for my projects, I was welcome to study whatever interested me. So I got a large fellowship that funded most of my research.

How widespread are beavers?

They're everywhere! Beavers have been in North America for millions of years. We know that the dam-building species or behavior is at least seven million years old, because that’s the oldest fossil dam we’ve found.

Before the trapping boom [which peaked in the 1800s], there was somewhere between 60 and 400 million in North America, or about a beaver per kilometer of stream. Then we trapped them down to almost nothing. Today there are somewhere between 10 and 15 million. They’re everywhere from Northern Mexico all the way to the Arctic, coast to coast. I study them in deserts and dry environments.

Tell me about your research.

I use remote sensing data to look at creeks in Nevada that have pockets of beaver damming, so that I'm able to compare the sections that have beavers to the sections that don't have beavers. I looked over four years: Three drought years and one wet. Over all those years, the beaver areas had a much lusher wetland.

Between drought years and non-drought years, the areas that had beavers didn’t really respond differently, which indicated that [the wetland plants] don’t really feel a multiyear drought in the beaver ponds. But in the areas of the creek that didn’t have beavers, the riparian wetland [wetland adjacent to the creeks] was really hit hard during the drought years, so it’s much more sensitive to multiyear droughts.

Was your study the first to look at that effect?

Yeah, there was [no research] directly tying beavers to that ecosystem impact.

What’s the significance of making wetlands more resilient?

Wetlands are extremely biodiverse. In the beaver wetlands I was studying there are threatened trout species, threatened frog species. A lot of insects will breed there, birds come there to nest. If you’re putting these systems into drought, those species are going to be hit hard. But if you can maintain these pockets of habitat [with the help of beavers], even when you have something like a drought that disturbs that ecosystem, it can still make it. It’s putting life support on the ecosystem.

a beaver dam in Colorado

A beaver dam in Colorado. (Photo courtesy Emily Fairfax)

What are you working on now?

The wildfire project, which was the subject of that video.

I saw these beavers maintaining ecosystems through drought and I wanted to see how far it can go. What’s more extreme than a drought? A fire! It's hotter and drier.

During fires, are these [beaver areas] actually staying green and wet? And how big of fires can they actually persist through? I imagine a wetland of any kind is going to make it through a little brush fire, but we're talking about big crowning wildfires [which spread at treetops independent of the ground fire].

I have data from five states that have five really big fires [and] also have beaver dams in them. I looked at each creek and compared where it stayed green to where there were beaver dams, and it’s an extremely tight correlation.

So, even with big fires, the dams helped the wetlands stay green.

Yeah, they were still preserved.

How does climate change tie into your research?

Most places where I look at beavers are getting increasingly hotter and drier. 

I think that looking to things like beavers — ecosystem engineers that would be there anyway — is going to be a more sustainable way than trying to continue to manage every single wetland ourselves.

Does that mean reintroducing them to areas?

It means reintroduction and then also protection. A lot of states are starting to make more steps toward things like installing beaver dam analogues, which is when people build fake beaver dams, but also reintroduce beavers. And then, ultimately, putting policies into place where people can’t trap and shoot beavers without a permit. I think that’s going to really help their population grow and be more stable.

Tell me about the video you made.

Yeah! The base of the video is corkboard, and I covered it with green construction paper. And then I cut all the little pieces out of felt. The flames in the video are felt clumps that I sewed together, and for the dam I was just laying felt on top of itself to get a little more height. I already had the little beaver toy — I have lots of beaver toys.

I used my phone and an app to take about 300 pictures and stitch them all together to make the stop-motion. Between every picture I’d push the beaver toy and move the flames. I took it all and added the sounds in iMovie. All in all, it was about 2.5 hours of work.

emily fairfaxHave you done other creative science communication projects?

I participated in a contest to haiku my research. I was one of the winners.

[The winning haiku:
Vanishing wetlands
Wilderness scarred by drought, fire
Beavers save the day]

Tell me about the reception the video had.

It exploded. I put it on my Twitter and I went for a hike and I didn’t have cell reception. When I got back from the hike my phone pinged and it was my friend. She was like “yo, your tweet blew up.” I was not expecting that, but it reached a really broad audience.

One of the coolest things was seeing it get retweeted in so many different languages and all around the world. I think it helped a lot that there was no speaking in the video.

I think if you can just think about how to take your science and distill it down into something really digestible, then you can actually reach a really broad audience.

What do you hope the impact will be?

First, I hope that other scientists think about how they can also get their research out there. There’s so much cool science going on and I think everyone should hear about it. It’s on the scientists to take it to a level where it is digestible by the general public.

And then, I hope people like beavers more. They’ve struggled with PR. They are 70-pound rodents, which can be hard for some people to enjoy. I wanted [the video] to be a resource for people, so if they're confronted with a beaver they can think, “Ok, I did learn about this, they're not bad, they are good.”