Tag Archives: biodiversity

An Ode to the Beaver

A report on the ecology of the Alta Lake region by naturalists Kenneth Racey and Ian McTaggart-Cowan from 1935 depicts a Whistler we all are familiar with. They reinforce the picture of a diverse and eco-rich valley with an abundance of species of animals and vegetation alike. Today the Whistler Biodiversity Project has documented over 2500 species in the area, expecting that number to be up to 3000 when new records have been finalized.

Despite the whopping number of species in our fertile little valley, there are a few things that have changed since Racey and McTaggart Cowen collated their data back in the 1930’s.

The two men provided the provincial museum with a detailed overview of the species we have in Whistler. This overview included a description of the state of the Castor Canadensis Pacificus, or Pacific Beaver. It states “The Beaver has been completely trapped out in the district for over twenty years.” It goes on to mention that even though the Beaver has been hunted to nonexistence, proof of their lifestyle still exists in the form of dams left behind.

With the halt of killing beavers for their pelts came the slow re-emergence of a creature whose activities literally shaped the waterways of our country. When water depth or quantities are not suitable, the extraordinary beaver will transform a stream in a forest into a large pond with nothing more then gnawed wood, sticks and mud. Several plant species rely on such water sources for habitat, so beavers can also be credited to many a saved plant.


Canada, in the form of a swimming rodent. Photo by Bob Brett.

Beaver lodges and dams can be enormous. The largest on record spans 850 meters, which was found in Northern Alberta in 2007. It is possible that humans got the idea of a “nuclear” family from beavers, whose lodge consists of a pair of parents, their babies and yearlings. Monogamy anyone?

Their lodges can only be accessed from underwater. Beavers are great swimmers; with an extra, transparent eyelid that’s helps them see underwater. They have large webbed feet, which they use as flippers, and a paddle-shaped, rudder-like tail. Their tail is leathery and large, growing up to 38 centimeters. The sound of these large tails slapping the water also acts as an alarm to warn of a predator. On land the tail can prop up a sitting beaver and add extra balance while they are carrying supplies.

Our main industry, tourism, has to give thanks to the beavers as well for assuring that tour companies can operate in hot and dry years. With the improved management of this inspiring species we can assure their continued existence and in turn the continued flourishing of the Whistler valley.


Who can resist falling in love with this little guy?


By Shayna Ross-Kelly

Summer is the Season to Discover Nature!

Enjoying nature is a year-round activity, but summer is the best time to experience our natural environment in its full splendour. Many species have adapted to our harsh mountain landscape and long, snowy winters by laying low for much of the year. This conserves energy for the flourish of activity and abundance we see in summer.

Bears are probably our most beloved hibernators, waking from their slumbers in spring and chasing plant foods like berries up the mountainsides as the snowline recedes.  Once they reach the alpine in late summer, bears, along with hikers and other visitors, are welcomed by vast meadows carpeted in vibrant colours; alpine wildflowers who need to maximize their visibility to ensure they are pollinated by insects during the short, snowless growing season above treeline.

moss campion

Moss campion offers a burst of lavender amidst the bleak alpine scree. Photo: Bob Brett/Whistler Naturalists.

When it comes to seasonality, however, the hoary marmot, Whistler’s other mammalian mascot, takes first prize. Unlike bears, marmots live in the alpine year-round, and thus hibernate for 7-8 months of the year! This leaves them with a rather a short window to mate & reproduce, pose for tourist photos, and fatten up for the ensuing winter, so they can be quite loud and excitable.


The Hoary Marmot dutifully poses for a photo op on Whistler Mountain. Jeff Slack photo.

The giant trees of our temperate rainforest are no different, going dormant through the winter and growing through the summer. In fact, the tree rings that we use to determine the ages of trees only exist because of this seasonal ebb and flow; the rings of light and dark matter coincide with periods of rapid and slow growth, respectively. Trees closer to the equator that lack distinct seasons have less prominent rings, or none at all.

Here at the museum, summer causes a spike in activity as well. First off, our brood of staff grows with the addition of summer students. Secondly, summertime means an increase in our outdoor, family-friendly programming. Our Valley of Dreams walking tours resumed in June and continue daily, by-donation, until the end of August. This past week we saw the return of two more family favourites: Discover Nature, and Crafts in the Park.

Now in its second summer, Discover Nature aims to educate and inspire wonder about Whistler’s amazing natural world. It is offered every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday in July and August, from 10am-4pm, at Lost Lake Park. On the lawn above Lost Lake beach we have an interactive table led by professional naturalist Kristina Swerhun. Guests will learn all about Whistler’s rich biodiversity, from bears to bacteria, and the intricate ecological web in which we live. Additionally, guided nature walks will depart from the Passivhaus at the entrance to Lost Lake Park every day at 11am.

See you outside!

Celebrating our swamps

As far as ecosystems go, swamps, bogs, marshes, fens, and other sorts of wetlands don’t get a lot of love. It’s understandable, mostly. Few people would consider a swamp when heading out for an afternoon stroll. When you do end up tromping about in one you generally end up exhausted, covered in mud, and reeking of rot.
Wetlands simply aren’t human-friendly landscapes. This helps explain the word “mire,” which refers to a stressful situation from which it is hard to extricate oneself, but is also another name for a type of swamp.
Who said wetlands are ugly? Bog laurel adds a splash of colour along the water's edge. Photo by local naturalist Bob Brett.

Who said wetlands are ugly? Bog laurel adds a splash of colour along the water’s edge. Photo by local naturalist Bob Brett.

Despite the bad rap, wetlands are extremely productive and important ecosystems. For one, they act as giant sponges that help soak up excess water in the landscape during the spring melt or after heavy rain. Likewise, wetlands mitigate periods of drought by slowly rationing out all of the water they had absorbed and held. Simply put, wetlands help prevent flood AND drought.
As water slowly flows through, the soils and dense organic matter in swamps act as a massive filtration system, removing silt, toxins, and pollutants from the water before releasing it downstream, clearer and cleaner.
Named for their pungent aroma, skunk cabbage flowers start popping up in damp lowlands soon after the snow recedes, and are a favourite early season snack for the local bears. Photo by local naturalist Bob Brett.

Named for their pungent aroma, skunk cabbage flowers start popping up in damp lowlands soon after the snow recedes, and are a favourite early season snack for the local bears. Photo by local naturalist Bob Brett.

What is known as the Whistler Valley is actually more of a long and low mountain pass, a stretch of relatively flat land between the Cheakamus and Green River Canyons. Abundant year-round precipitation supplemented by the slow release of our summer snow melt, flows down from surrounding mountains and is absorbed by the valley’s deep and dense organic soil, characteristic of our coastal rainforest ecosystem, creating perfect conditions for the formation of wetlands.
Although humans may not be so fond of them, wetlands provide crucial habitat for a huge variety of plants, insects, and animals. Some of the most bio-diverse environments in Whistler (or anywhere, for that matter) are wetlands.
A myriad of amphibians can be found in local wetlands, including the Northwestern salamander. Photo by local naturalist Bob Brett.

A myriad of amphibians can be found in local wetlands, including the northwestern salamander. Photo by local naturalist Bob Brett.

Whistler has 5 main lakes and countless creeks and streams, but only about a quarter of the swamps and marshes that historically filled the valley still remain. They are one of the most threatened ecosystems in the area because these are usually very level terrain that can be drained and developed to become the (relatively) dry land that we live, work, and play on.

Still, we’re fortunate to have large and healthy marshes around Millar Creek just North of Function Junction, along Fitzsimmons Creek, in the Emerald Forest and around the River of Golden Dreams, and elsewhere.

Beaver love wetlands so much, they make their own! Castor Canadensis used to be prominent throughout the Whistler Valley, and are once again making a comeback.

Beaver love wetlands so much, they make their own! Castor Canadensis used to be prominent throughout Whistler, and are once again making a comeback. Photo by local naturalist Bob Brett.

Next time you’re passing by a Whistler wetland, whether biking the Valley Trail, or tromping about in the bush, take a moment to stand still and observe. Chances are you’ll discover a cacophony of buzzing, splashing, and chirping, evidence of the thriving communities that call these oft-dismissed places home.

If we were able to translate the dragonflies, tadpoles, and herons’ languages, who knows what peat poets and bog bards we would discover. All that’s certain is the verb “mired” wouldn’t be in their vocabulary!