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Ask-A-Scientist Podcast E4: Dr. Emily Fairfax, beaver scientist

Listen to our podcast episode or read the transcript below featuring Dr. Emily Fairfax, beaver scientist, as we talk about how to do everything you love in life while still getting 9 hours of sleep per night.

And I just couldn’t stop thinking about them. So I quit my job and went to grad school to study beavers.

From a very early age, my brain was like trying to figure out how to go do exploration.

I get nine hours a night and that is not negotiable.

Tanya: Hi everyone and welcome to Ask-a-Scientist, a Science Journal for Kids podcast where we explore what it’s like to be a scientific researcher. I’m Tanya Dimitrova and I’m here with my co-host Miranda Wilson.

Miranda: Hey there!

T: Today our guest is Dr. Emily Fairfax. Emily is an assistant professor at California State University, Channel Islands, and also an affiliate professor at Utah State University – both of these simultaneously. And soon she’ll be joining the faculty at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Emily completed her undergraduate degree at Carleton College doing a double major in chemistry and physics. Wow! And her PhD in Geological Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Emily’s research focuses on beavers, their dams, and how this affects the rivers and ecosystems around them. Our Science Journal for Kids recently adapted and published one of her research papers on this exact topic. Today we will talk with Emily about her work, but we will also get to know, at least a little bit, the person behind the professional scientist.

Hi Emily, and welcome to the podcast.

Emily: Hi, I’m super happy to be here.

M: So, let’s go ahead and start by saying that you claim to be able to talk about beavers all day long. And in fact, you’ve been involved in a prolific amount of media coverage about beavers and their importance in the ecosystem. They’re cool animals with impressive skills; they’re important for the ecosystem and water resources, as well as plants and animals. But there are lots of other species out there. So why beavers?

E: Oh, that’s a tough one. I never actually intended to study beavers from day one. I had always loved wetlands and I thought they were really cool and special places with lots of animals. Didn’t know that there were careers in wetlands. So, I was actually working as an engineer myself and not really resonating with that job when I saw a documentary about beavers and I was so hooked.

Like they were showing all these incredible aerial shots of beaver ponds in the middle of deserts and there were these hydrologists talking about how cool beavers were but that we didn’t understand them all the way and I was like, ‘no way we of course we understand beavers; like they’ve been here forever.’

But then I dug into it a little more and it was true. Like, there was all this research that still had to be done on beavers and I just couldn’t stop thinking about them. So I quit my job and went to grad school to study beavers. And I literally have not looked back since. I don’t know why they just stuck with me so much, but they did. And every day I learned something new about them and it’s more and more exciting. And I never knew that I was going to become like a beaver person.

T: Did you feel that they were a better engineer than me so I need to figure out what their secret was?

E: Oh, a hundred percent. They just go into the landscape. They know exactly what they’re doing. They don’t have to draft like blueprints or anything. They just go out and do it first pass. And it’s the right way to do it. And me as an engineer, I’m like in the lab, taking my note to my little lab notebook and, you know, running the experiments over and over and over and over again. And there’s these beavers just doing it out there on their own. And I found that very impressive knowing how hard it is to be an engineer. Animals are amazing.

Emily checking a beaver dam (Credit: Emily Fairfax)

T: So our next question is from a listener.

Aili: Hi, I’m Aili and I’m five years old and I have a question for you. Why do beavers have big tails?

E: Why do beavers have big tails? You know, that’s a good question. The tail is definitely the most obvious part of the beaver. Like there’s no other animal that I can think of that has this big flat paddle tail. And the reason beavers have it is twofold.

First, that tail is like a rudder. So when they’re swimming, their tail helps them steer and glide through the water super easily and smoothly so that they can navigate these aquatic environments much more easily than say an animal that had a little stubby tail and didn’t have that rudder.

The other thing the tail is good for is storing fat. So when beavers are eating and bulking up and trying to get big before the winter, They don’t hibernate in the winter, but they do have a harder time finding food. So they try to, you know, add some weight before winter comes. Their tail is a place where a lot of fat is stored. And you can see in beavers, if they’re going through a really tough period, their tail can actually start to lose mass and thin off. And if they’re going through a great period, their tail can get, you know, bigger and healthier. It’s not quite as extreme as like camels storing fat in their humps, but it is a fat reservoir on the beaver.

M: That’s really cool. It sounds like beavers might be pretty cuddly animals. Can you actually cuddle a beaver or keep one as a pet?

E: Oh, I wish. They are totally cuddly and very social, and especially with their family. So beavers live in family units. You’ve got mom and dad beaver, a couple of teenage beavers living at home, and then usually a couple of little baby beavers called kits. And within the family, they have such tight dynamics, like they play with each other, they groom each other, they snuggle with each other. They just look like something that you’d want to like go in and join the family and snuggle, too.

But unfortunately, they’re a wild animal so you shouldn’t be snuggling beavers. Even if you see them, even if it looks like they would probably snuggle you back, not a good idea. They are very social though. When beavers do wind up in rehab facilities after they’re injured or separated from their families, the rehabbers have to be very careful because the beaver will absolutely try to form a bond with the rehabber and you don’t want to let that develop too far if you want that beaver to go back to the wild.

M: That makes a lot of sense.

T: So still though, if you had to cheat on beavers with another animal, which one would you choose?

E: Oh, hmm. I think if I had to pick another animal that was not beavers that I wanted to study, I would probably choose to study another ecosystem engineer like prairie dogs or buffalo, all these different animals that can go out and reshape the landscape. I find that really impressive watching them do things that you would selfishly think only people can do.

Emily on a beaver-gnawed stump (Credit: Emily Fairfax)

But if I was just going based on animals I like, I would probably pick skunks or possums. I love both of them. They’re so cute. Like skunks, when they get mad at you, they do a little handstand, stick their butts in the air. And like, that’s how they warn you. They’re like, ‘get away!’ And they’re doing this really, like totally goofy acrobatics before they spray you. And then like, you really do want to be getting away.

And then possums are just so goofy like they just walk around and they always look a little bit stressed but a little bit happy and they’ve got their big weird rat tails and they’re just so silly and they [have] no fear. You see a possum out there and it looks at you right back, and it’s just, like, ‘whatever,’ and keeps strolling and I respect that about possums. I think they’re so funny.

They’re also all like these kind of fuzzy woodland animals. I think maybe I just have like a theme that I gravitate towards.

M: So we’re curious to hear a bit more about you and your path to actually becoming a researcher. So we wanted to start at the beginning. What were your favorite subjects in school?

E: Oh, so at the very beginning, very, very beginning, my mom has this story that when I was in preschool, I told her that I had decided I was going to walk on the rings of Saturn. But she shouldn’t be upset about that because I was going to bring my car seat so I would be safe. And so like from very early age probably before I was even forming very concrete memories my brain was like trying to figure out how to go do exploration and be safe doing it and that sort of followed me forever in my life.

As soon as I started school I loved all subjects and I actually gravitated a lot towards things like history and English. And I really enjoyed science and math as well, but it was really learning about the world around me in this full context.

There was this book series, I don’t know if it’s still around, called The Eyewitness Books and it was all these different topics about everything you could imagine, cars, animals, gems, rocks, minerals, rockets, mammals, and you could get them and you’d read about these things sort of encyclopedia style. But there’d always be the historical context and the social context.

So I was never like, oh, science all the way, you know, math and reading is for dorks. I’m just a scientist. And I was never like, oh, I’m a poet at heart. I’m not going to touch any mathematical equations. I’ve always just really loved it all. And I’ve loved being able to dabble in every single topic.

As I got further along in my studies, I definitely started pulling in more and more science, but I was always reading, always watching documentaries, always trying to keep that broader context in my education.

T: And it shows, even by choosing a double scientific major in college. Was that hard to do? Is it something you recommend?

E: Oh my gosh, it was hard. I highly recommend it, if it’s something you sincerely want. I think when I was picking my double major, I could not decide what kind of science I wanted to go into. I had so many diverse interests, and I was really feeling nervous that if I picked a major now, and it wasn’t broad enough, I was going to close doors on myself. And then in three years, I would figure out, ‘oh, shoot, I wanted to study this. I don’t have the right preparation for it!’

So just kind of like I was bringing my car seat to Saturn in my mind. I was like, I will just take all the classes in STEM and I will make it so that my background is so broad that I can still have a lot of choices going forward.

It was really hard. It was really time-consuming. I had to pass up on other experiences that I probably would have enjoyed like doing a study abroad course. But I did keep that really broad STEM background that ultimately did let me choose a variety of careers post-college from being an engineer to being a beaver scientist. Thank you double major for giving me that broad preparation.

M: So with that double major in two sciences, did that actually mean that it took you longer to get through college or were you still kind of on track for a four-year college experience?

E: I was still on track for a four-year and I graduated in four years. It was very planned. I, from like year one, I knew exactly which trimester I was taking which class and if I got off by one class, it would throw the whole plan out the window. So I had to be really disciplined.

It was good because I like planning ahead and so I like knew exactly what was coming. Oh, this is going to be a really hard term at school. This is going to be a little bit lighter term at school.

But when a cool elective was offered and it wasn’t like on the books for years and years, I’d have to stop and think, can I add this on top of what I planned? Or not, because if I can’t add it I really can’t take it because I don’t have room if I still want to graduate in four years.

So I took away my flexibility to explore new classes outside of like the standard catalog during college but I just I added some on top of my schedule sometimes which made some really tough semesters with a lot of classes. So I’m lucky that I really genuinely like learning because if I didn’t that would have been a not fun time.

T: So this strict discipline and this love of learning I think explains why your current CV is 22 pages long while you’re still very young. And obviously, you’ve done and you’re currently doing a lot of stuff. And my question is, how do you balance your work and personal life? Do you have time for things outside of work? And I should also ask, do you sleep? Because we recently adapted a research paper about the importance of sleep. I can share it with you. It’s very important.

E: Ah, that’s a great question. First of all, I do sleep. A lot of people actually tease me because I’m very assertive about guarding my sleep. I get nine hours a night and that is not negotiable. So I’ll be like telling people like, Oh, I gotta head to bed. And they’re like, it’s 9:30. And I’ll be like, right half hour past bedtime. This is like I’m staying up late. So I do guard my sleep schedule pretty intensely.

I think that the work-life balance has been a challenge to figure out. It when I first started being an academic and being a professor it was really hard because you can say yes to everything and totally over-commit yourself and not leave time for the stuff that is fun but not work.

I feel pretty lucky that some of my fun activities overlap with my work activities. So I like to go hiking, I like to go camping, I like to be in places that have wetlands and rivers. So a lot of times I’ll be doing a camping trip, be able to take one day out of four to go fly my drone at a field site, collect some data, then go back to just having fun around the campfire with my friends. That’s a little bit more of like the strategic side that I practiced in college planning my schedule out.

But it’s also just figuring out which things that I say yes to are worth it to me, and which things I should probably just say like, not me. Or now that I have been in the field a little bit longer, I get to do it in a more fun way, which is not me, but here’s someone I know that’s awesome. And making those personal recommendations for former students, for colleagues, for collaborators who, you know, I’ve talked to so and so group three times already, and I love talking to them. But at this point, like, maybe I should have one of my students give that presentation. And that gives me more time for my work-life balance and helps lift up some of my students that maybe don’t have the same visibility that I do.

It’s still hard though. Sometimes I’ll have to have my friends or my husband be like, ‘Hey, guess what? You’ve been at your computer for 10 hours. It’s time to get up and walk.’ And I’ll be like, ‘Shoot! You are right. Where did the time go?’ It’s hard. When you really love what you do and you really love the topic, it’s easy to lose yourself in it and forget that there are other things that you really love, as well. I love cooking, I love yoga, I love video games, I love running. I have to leave time for those things and make sure I am actually enjoying it and not doing it out of obligation still.

M: So it sounds like you really love being a researcher, but if that profession weren’t open to you, do you have any other professions that you could see yourself in?

E: Totally. I have always had plans A through Z, and being a researcher is definitely plan A. But some of the alternate plans that I’ve thought about, and I still think about if I’m having a bad day, I’ll be like, what if I just quit and did this? I think it’s totally normal for people to wonder and daydream about those things.

I would love to be a park ranger. I really like talking to people about the natural world, and I think it’d be fun to just stand there and give a talk about bats or beavers or pine trees or whatever is in the park that I’m working in. And get people excited about science and really lean more into the communicator rather than the researcher role. That would totally be a fun career for me.

I wish that I was good enough at cooking to say I could open up a restaurant or a bakery. I really like cooking, it’s fun, but I don’t think I could do it professionally except maybe at a farmer’s market in a really small town where there’s not a lot of competition.

Featured on The Golden State podcast (Credit: Emily Fairfax)

T: One of the things that you’re clearly passionate about is education and outreach, which is a huge part of every researcher’s work. It’s really essential for researchers to be able to communicate about their research. Do you think that this might be easier for you, specifically because you work with some very charismatic animals and do cool stuff out in the field with drones?

E: It definitely is easier in some ways because beavers are charismatic because drones are very fascinating, like you’re flying a little robot and that’s cool and people like to hear about it. But beavers have had a real rocky history with public relations and are often thought of as pests even today. People think they’re disgusting, people think they’re a big rat. They are a big rat, it’s okay that they’re a big rat. Those are all barriers in communication that I’ve had to think about and be strategic about. And every animal has that.

Like, the reason that we like beavers is because people like me and a lot of my colleagues have been describing them based on their positive benefits. And instead of talking about them as like an oversized, massive rodent, we’re talking about them like this big fuzzy animal. And that kind of messaging really goes a long way from thinking about them as gross versus cool.

Other animals I think would benefit from having more people just highlight what’s good about them, even things like worms, like worms, ew, worms. I don’t personally like worms very much, but I can see how you could talk about worms in a way that would make them seem really beautiful, like they’re carving these paths through the underground, they’re like, dwarves in the Lord of the Rings. There are lots of ways that you can describe an animal that’s maybe not be 100 percent accurate to what they are, but it can give people a more vivid mental image that’s not off-putting. So beavers have helped me in that I think they are objectively cute. But not everyone loves them, and there are always people you have to convince even if you are working with the cutest most cuddly animal in the world.

M: In addition to outreach, you’re very involved in education, especially with undergraduates, and you mentioned a little while ago about including them in your research or making presentations. Can you talk to us a little bit about how you involve your undergraduate students in your fieldwork and your research, and whether they are participating in classes or organized programs like the REU program, or do they actually work for your lab?

E: All of the above. So the students that I work with, they’re typically students from my university, but I’ve actually mentored and brought on students from other universities for short-term projects as well, where it’s really up to the student what skills they want to develop and what they want to get out of that experience. Whenever I bring someone into my lab, we go through and talk about What concrete things are you trying to get out of this? Is it money, which is allowed? Research is a job. Is it something to put on your resume or your CV? Are you just trying to beef up your skill set? Is it a new tool that you want to learn how to use? Do you want to learn to fly a drone? And so that’s why you’ve come to my lab so that I can teach you.

Making that really clear to me up front helps me figure out what tasks and activities to really make sure the student’s involved in. If they want to learn to fly a drone, they have to be doing field-work heavy projects with me. And so we’ll develop a research plan where they’re coming into the field. But then also processing that drone data, realizing field work is fun and awesome but it’s a small sliver of the scientific process. You also have to do something with the data that you collect.

And then I also make sure that everybody leaves with a deliverable that they can share later on. A lot of times that’s a scientific poster. Sometimes it’s an infographic. I had one student create a species guide because they were monitoring a wetland using game cameras to see what kind of animals were visiting. So we made a public facing GAP WORDS here. If you visit the site, you could see all these different animals kind of thing. Sometimes it’s published paper, depending on how long the students are working with me. That’s a long process to get science from idea to the peer reviewed literature. But if I have a student with me for two or three years, we can absolutely make that one of our goals.

Field site showing beaver impacts (Credit: Emily Fairfax)

And then making sure that I’m adaptable. Sometimes students will join my lab and realize that they actually love whales and not beavers. And that’s a little too far outside my skill set to really be an effective mentor for them. So then I’d be connecting them with whale people who do whale stuff and still making sure that they got something out of being in my lab. Sometimes my role is just to be a facilitator with other scientists. Sometimes my role is to create the next sort of group of beaver people rising into the world which I really enjoy doing.

And I stay in touch with all my students even once they leave my lab. A lot of them go on and work in the workforce, and they’re still sending me pictures of beaver dams. And I’m like, ‘That’s a great one! Where’d you see this?’ Or some of them think about going to grad school, or do go to graduate school and they want to know like, ‘Where should I go? Do you have recommendations?’

Working with undergrads, for me, it’s really more of a mentorship thing than it is, like, you’re an employee in my lab, unless that’s really all the student wants. If that’s what they want, I’m not going to, like, force mentorship on them. But really, it’s about developing relationships with these young folks and helping them see potential future paths for themselves in science and maybe trying some things out to figure out earlier on what they do and what they don’t want so they don’t feel like they have to double or triple or quadruple major to keep those doors open. I wish I had figured out that I loved beavers a little earlier on. Because it would have saved me some time in college, and I could have had a little more fun with my social life. But you live and you learn.

M: Absolutely. It sounds like you’re really cognizant about your role as a mentor. Did you have any mentors or any experiences with mentors as you were going through your schooling that made an impact on you?

E: Absolutely. I have been very fortunate to have found mentors every step along the way. In high school, I moved right in the middle of high school from Michigan to Arizona and as soon as I got to the school, like what an awkward time to move as a teenager, like you are right in the middle of high school, social groups are already developed. One of my teachers really saw that I loved reading and immediately took on a mentorship role with me, guiding me to more difficult texts, helping me think beyond the scope of a class content, like where could I take this in a career? And her support really pushed me to think about a liberal arts education versus a very traditional solid STEM education.

So even though I did double major in sciences, I went to a liberal arts college where we had to take things like philosophy and writing and, you know, political theory and psychology and all this other stuff. And that was huge for me because I was like, alright, I’m going to listen to what this very cool person I met in high school has told me.

T: Do you feel that social media, such as TikTok and Twitter, where short nuggets of information are used to communicate even more complicated topics, do you think that makes a difference in getting people interested in science or really understanding it? Or does it really actually take away from the complexity of the world?

E: I think it is an incredible tool for engaging the public in your science. You always are going to lose complexity when you simplify what you talk about and that just is what it is. It’s not appropriate to speak at max complexity with a general audience, because that’s not going to be understood, and you’ve sort of failed in your job as a science communicator if you do that.

I think it’s important to be clear when you are simplifying things. So when I make short Twitter posts, when I put up videos or clips of media, I’ll say, like, ‘The key point is here; ask me more details.’ Ask me about beavers. Like, I would love to engage in a deeper conversation. I don’t lie. I can talk about beavers all day. I will talk about beavers all day. But here’s the snippet to pique your interest. And so just being very upfront, like, this is not the full story, but this is a good synopsis.

I think that’s great. I think we should do that more because otherwise, you have all these amazing things going on in the world that people are studying and that people understand, but they can’t share it with anyone. And if you can’t share it with anyone, no one else is going to be excited about it. And from a practical standpoint, that means no one’s going to fund it. No one’s going to want to collaborate with you on research for this because nobody gets it. It doesn’t like nobody understands why it’s important. But if you do communicate it well, even to other scientists and say like, you know why beavers are awesome? Because they can influence wildfires, right? Weird. And then start digging into like, why? Well, all of the water that’s being stored in the soil or the leaf biomass and like, spiral at that point into your details. But you got to have a hook that people care about.

So, I am all about doing the simplified science communication. I prefer to read that, like when I have other people, even in my field, doing cool science, like I want to read their short form first. I don’t want to jump right into the details that’s heavy on my brain. Sometimes I just want to be excited.

T: Okay, so speaking of short form, you have written a haiku poem about your research. Would you like to share your research in 17 syllables for us?

E: Yeah.

Vanishing wetlands

Wilderness scarred by drought, fire

Beavers save the day

T: That’s awesome.

Field site showing absence of beavers (Credit: Emily Fairfax)

M: In your research, we have actually adapted some of it in a paper titled “Would Beavers Make Good Firefighters?” And in that piece of research, you use satellite imagery to investigate the impact of beaver activity on wildfires. Your research involves a lot of remote sensing. In other words, you get to fly a drone often. Did you get into this type of research in order to play with drones all day or is that just one of the perks?

E: It is totally a perk. When I got into remote sensing I was terrified of drones because they were so expensive when I first started and they did not have as many sensors so they were easy to crash and today drones have so many fail-safes on them that if you like, you have to try to crash that thing. Like, it will have so many warnings and it’ll stop itself and it’ll be like, I’m not going to hit the tree. And you can be like, no, hit it. And it will override you unless you specifically put it into a mode that says like, ‘Let me crash you.’ So I’m not scared to fly drones anymore. I used to be very scared of them.

But I got into remote sensing because it was such a cool way for me to think about seeing the earth. Like I loved sci-fi growing up and reading science fiction books, and you think about time travel and being able to go back in time and see the planet like what it used to be. And I was always so – I don’t know what the right word is, like – jealous, I guess, that that wasn’t a real thing. Because I wanted to do it and I was like, ‘Come on, let me look back in time!’ And that’s what remote sensing lets you do because the satellites have been going around the earth passively collecting data for decades so I can go back and look at a landscape 25 years ago and see what it looked like and then watch it change over time and sort of be there without actually having to have been there.

And that’s been really powerful in my research because when I’m thinking about things like wildfires, I don’t know where they’re gonna be burning from year to year. Like I don’t start my own wildfires. So I have to go back in time. I have to go and you know, zoom back a few years or 10 years to see these places before they burned and then to look at them today after they burned.

Just I probably just read too much sci-fi and fantasy. Like there’s all these characters where it’s like they’re in tune with like a bird or something. And they can like send the bird flying and then see through the bird’s eyes. And it’s like a way that like scouts or rangers can experience landscape away from where they are. And I was just like that’s so cool like what if I could do that and that’s literally what a drone is. It’s like I can send up this little robo-bird, and it flies, and I’m seeing through its eyes and that’s beyond cool to me I just feel like I’m being transported into an alternate universe where I’m not limited by the bounds of my body I’m doing this like cool eldritch magic or something to see the planet from above. And it’s just so exciting and I don’t I know it’s like not actually fantasy magic but it feels that way and if it does and that makes me happy like I’m gonna go fly a drone.

T: That’s awesome. So after your paper came out in our journal we received a question from a student about your research that maybe you could answer for us right now.

E: Yeah totally.

Conner: Hi, my name is Conner. How do beavers and their dams affect plants and animals further downstream?

E: So when beavers build their dams, first they don’t usually just build one dam, they’re going to build quite a few dams, mostly in sequence, sometimes a little bit offset from one another. That is going to vary depending on where you are in the landscape. If you are in a place where you usually have like pretty flashy snow melt, so you have a lot of water that comes through in the spring when snow’s melting and then a little bit less water in the summer, this is pretty common in the American West. When you have a lot of beaver dams upstream of you, those beaver dams are going to slow that water down and spread it out and it makes it take a little bit longer to get downstream. So instead of having this like huge wave of water arrive as soon as snowmelt happens, you would have a little bit less water at any given time, but that water would last longer. And so we see this happening in a few places around the American West, where having a bunch of beaver dams upstream or in the headwaters makes it so that you have more consistent water downstream.

Now, if you are a frog that needs to be in a moist environment, if you are a fish that has to live in the water, that is good news for you because you have water more consistently year-round. If you are a[n] animal that needs to navigate the landscape, that is also good news for you because instead of having this like really torrential amount of water coming through your stream all at once, that’s hard, it’s like rapids, it’s a little bit gentler. And if it is the summertime when it’s really hot and dry and other streams are starting to disappear and stop flowing, this can also be really beneficial because you have more water into the summer. It’s just arriving slower. It’s like you took a slower path to get there.

So it definitely changes it, like it doesn’t look the same as if you wouldn’t have had any beavers upstream. But overall, just having a few beavers upstream or even a lot of beavers upstream, you’re not really going to see like water starvation downstream, which some people worry about, like are the beavers keeping all the water for themselves? No, they’re just slowing it down.

Emily uses stop-motion to show how beavers impact the environment positively

T: So beavers and humans get a lot into each other’s business in a way, right? So what can people do to live in more harmony with these animals?

E: It’s a good question. Beavers and people definitely butt heads. We are both really powerful engineers. We both really like to control the landscape. And we both don’t really like to compromise once we’ve made a decision. So when we find ourselves in the same landscape, which is river valleys, river bottoms, pretty much anywhere water flows, we have to come to terms with the fact that there’s another animal there that wants to do its own thing that is a lot of times not what we want to do.

So when we see a river corridor and a big old floodplain, humans a lot of the times think, wow, this is a great place for me to build a house and to drain off some of that water, maybe do some agriculture because it’s such rich soil. These are things that a lot of humans have done for a long time. When the beaver sees that same river floodplain, it’s like, wow, what a great place to turn into a wetland. Let’s store more water. Let’s make this squishier. So both of us are trying to make that river corridor our home. Our homes just look different.

So one of the ways that we can be more harmonious with beavers is to make more compromises and give up some more space. We don’t have to control the entire floodplain. We can have part of it for our homes, part of it for our yards. We don’t have to say, all right, I’m going to let the beaver flood my house. This is the only way to coexist. Like, we don’t have to completely do that. That’s too much.

But we don’t have to say, like, I need to control 50,000 acres and a beaver can’t touch a single square foot of it. Like, that’s too much control.

You can deter beavers from chewing on your favorite trees, really common conflict, by putting a little fence around them or by painting them with paint that has sand mixed into it. Beavers don’t like chewing on that gritty bark and so it’ll deter them. Might not be perfectly effective, you might still lose a couple trees, but you’re gonna lose less. Fences are much more effective. The beaver really has to work to get through a fence. They are not going to put in that effort if they don’t absolutely have to.

So, you know, we’re good engineers, too. We don’t have to roll over and be like, there’s no way to stop a beaver from chewing on a tree. Like, of course there is. We are very smart species ourselves. We can figure this out.

When beavers build their dams and create those ponds and induce that flooding, that flooding is good. Ecologically, that flooding is where we get a lot of these benefits from beavers. But like I said, we don’t want it in our basements. We don’t want it in our house. We don’t want it on the road. We don’t have to let it be that high. So when beavers build their dams, we can just put a pipe through the beaver dam.

The beaver can’t deal with the pipe. It doesn’t have the mental capacity to understand a pipe. And so the water level drops to wherever we put the pipe at. And the beaver is like, why isn’t my dam working? And it can’t quite figure it out. If the beaver won’t accept that new pond level, it leaves. Conflict solved. If the beaver does accept that new pond level, conflict solved. You’ve set the pond level at the height that you want it to be and beaver either stays or leaves. If beaver leaves, like you’ve done something that has now detracted from your environmental benefits, like think about that. Did you set it too low? Was that not really a compromise? But a lot of times they’ll stick around and then you get a lot of the benefits without the damage to our infrastructure.

M: We always like to end with a fun pie-in-the-sky question. So let’s just say you got a million dollars. What is one burning research question that you would like to try and answer?

E: If I had a million dollars, I think I would invest that into getting a preserve where beavers are really just being beavers, like zero influence from people. And then with half the beaver ponds in that site, test out some of our coexistence strategies, put in pond levelers, wrap the trees in wire, do all of this, and see how it actually changes the effects of beavers on the landscape because we know that we’re making these compromises to support uh conflict reduction and living alongside beavers but what we don’t know is, if we level the pond, are we reducing their ability to fight droughts and fires? Are we taking away from their ability to deal with floods? We don’t know. I’d really really like to know that answer now because I do tell people, like coexistence is a great thing we should do that I honestly think it is but I want people to have reasonable expectations like If you’re leveling all their ponds, you might not get the same fire benefits.

So I want the data to be able to tell you how much you can drop the pond level before you lose the fire resistance, because that’s important data to have. And I think it’s going to take a lot of individual data points, which is why I need a whole preserve full of beavers to be able to answer it.

T: Well, I hope at some point you get that huge preserve full of beavers.

E: It’s the dream.

T: Wow, Emily, thank you so much for your time today. We learned so many fun things, not just about beavers. We really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us.

E: Yeah, of course. This was awesome.

M: Did you know that you can directly read one of Emily’s scientific papers stripped from its complex scientific jargon and made understandable to readers as young as fourth grade in school? The link is in the show notes. You can also just Google its title: Would Beavers Make Good Firefighters? Or directly go to www.sciencejournalforkids.org and search for beaver.

T: That’s all for today. This podcast was produced with help from our research assistants Natalia Torres-Bejar, sound engineer Maria Mikhailova, and hosts Miranda Wilson and me, Tanya Dimitrova. Thank you for listening. Subscribe to this podcast to receive notifications about the next episode of Science Journal for Kids Ask-a-Scientist. Till next time.

You can read the student-friendly article by Emily, “Would Beavers Make Good Firefighters?”, at https://www.sciencejournalforkids.org/articles/would-beavers-make-good-firefighters/

Learn how to negotiate the impacts of beavers and humans in this original lesson plan: Beavers and ecosystem management – a town-hall role-play.

Get the latest updates on Emily’s research at her website, https://emilyfairfaxscience.com/ or follow her on X (formerly Twitter) @EmilyFairfax.

The original paper was published in Ecological Applications.

Title photo credit: Emily Fairfax

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