In 2009, I toured the Cascades for a summer. I came across what looked like a logging operation near Mount Lassen. Trees were systematically cut down and placed in a log pile, where someone was obviously chipping away the bark in a complicated operation. After some careful observation, I realized this was not a human operation at all, but the leavings of quite a remarkable animal. Today we will explore some interesting facts about the same animal, the beaver.
Photo by Francseco Ungaro.
They are the engineers of the animal world.
Beavers build dams across waterways to create ponds. They live in lodges with multiple rooms and complicated entrances. They even have a system for processing wood for construction, as described in the introduction. There are very few other animals with similar habits or instincts.
They are a keystone species.
This means that if beavers are removed from an ecosystem, said ecosystem will collapse. In the process of building dams and lodges, beavers create wetlands that support many different organisms and build natural communities. These ponds and wetlands support complicated ecosystems that would not exist without the help of the beaver.
Yes, they are native to California.
Many people believe that beavers are not native to the state, but there is a subspecies that is endemic to the waterways of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, including their tributaries in the Sierra Nevada. There is evidence that the species once lived in the High Sierra but was likely hunted to extinction in the 1800s.
They are the mascot of Oregon.
At one point, the fur trade was a major staple of the Oregon economy, and beaver pelts were particularly prized. This earned the place the nickname of the Beaver State, which it has held since. The beaver is also the mascot of Oregon State University.
Their teeth are unusual.
Beaver teeth contain iron, which give them their distinctive orange color. This makes them strong enough to gnaw through entire trees. These teeth keep growing throughout the beaver’s lifetime, becoming sharp with regular chewing.
Some candies were once butt flavored.
Beavers produce a substance from glands at the base of their tails called castoreum. This fatty, waxy material helps the beaver mark its territory and also waterproofs its fur. At one point in time, humans used the substance for artificial vanilla or berry flavors. It is not commonly used today, though the FDA still lists castoreum as a “natural flavor.”
The Old West economy once depended on them.
As mentioned elsewhere in this article, beaver pelts were an important part of the Oregon economy. They became very valuable after beaver hats became popular in Europe, especially France and England. It seems like a stupid thing today, but it was very important a few centuries ago. Unfortunately, this meant that numbers of beaver declined throughout their natural range and even became extinct in some places. Yeah, humans can suck sometimes.
The animal name is a slang term for female anatomy.
For those with their minds in the gutter, the term “beaver” makes one think of certain parts of a woman’s anatomy. This term is not as common today as it used to be, but you still occasionally find a joke about a “stuffed beaver” or “beaver dam” circulating online.
There is a much cleaner term, though.
Another common term is “eager beaver.” This refers to a keen and enthusiastic person who works hard. Beavers are so industrious they are often associated with hard work and labor, which is where this particular term came from.
They have been kept as pets.
However, it’s not something I would recommend. First of all, keeping a beaver for a pet is illegal in most states, and with good reason. Beavers are wild animals who are hard to train, chew horribly, and are known to experience territorial aggression. There is at least one report of a beaver killing a man.
One summer day, a scientific crew were at Rush Creek, a tributary of Mono Lake, where they were testing the electrical conductivity of the water flow. This required electrifying the water with a minor current, which would then be read by their instruments. It was not enough to hurt the local wildlife, but it did have an unexpected result. All of sudden there was a loud series of splashes and a large and very angry animal came popping out of the water. The startled beaver came up on the bank of the creek, gave the scientific team a dirty look, and then waddled into the bushes. This was the first documented case of a beaver near Mono Lake in decades. Fortunately, he came back later to finish whatever it was he was doing in the creek and the scientists didn’t disturb him again.
National Park Service- www.nps.gov
Oregon Wild- www.oregonwild.org
Tufts University- www.tufts.edu
Mental Floss- www.mentalfloss.com
Economic History- www.eh.net
Britannica Dictionary- www.britannica.com
Pet Keen- www.petkeen.com
Mono Lake Committee- www.monolake.org