Honoring The Deep Weirdness That Is The Beaver
How smart are beavers? Why did they start building dams? We may never know, but Leila Philip’s new book ‘Beaverland’ starts the conversation.
The following is an excerpt from Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America by Leila Philip.
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Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America
I think there is an element of the sacred in the beaver, if only in its deep weirdness. One million years ago, beavers the size of bears roamed North America. They pose an evolutionary puzzle, like the platypus, or birds, which share some DNA with dinosaurs. When they dive, they seem more like marine mammals than terrestrial species, more seal than rodent. Their dexterous forepaws look startlingly human with their five nimble fingers and naked palms. They groom their lustrous fur with catlike fastidiousness. Their mammalian beauty ends abruptly in the gooselike hind feet, each as wide as the beaver’s head. The feet are followed by a reptilian tail, which, it has been observed, looks like the result of some terrible accident, run over by a tractor tire, the treads leaving a pattern of indentations that resemble scales. Part bear, part bird, part monkey, part lizard, humanoid hands, an aquatic tail. Is it any surprise that beavers have fired the human imagination in every continent that they are found?
In the Bodleian Library at Oxford, a medieval bestiary dating from the early thirteenth century displays two beavers, meticulously drawn with long wolflike bodies, canine faces, and coats of silvery blue. Medieval depictions of beavers in Europe render them with serpentine necks, long canine legs, leonine paws, bushy tails, and removable testicles, flung at hunters to dis-tract them. The Roman Catholic Church decreed that they could be eaten like fish as penance on holy days. For wealthy Catholics, the flesh did double duty—it was both delicious and a coveted aphrodisiac. Beavers appeared on heraldry in Great Britain from the Middle Ages onward; on the coat of arms of the city of Oxford, a robust beaver with a flashy blue-and-white-checked tail leans opposite an elephant. In one of the earliest Dutch maps of the New Netherlands, a beaver is a symbol of industry, holding a stick in its paws like a rabbit. By 1715, the most famous of London cartographers, Herman Moll, rendered beavers on his map of the new British colonies by drawing them as a column of dispirited factory workers trudging toward a dam near Niagara Falls. Each walks upright on its hind legs, carrying its allotted beam of wood across its shoulder, single file. As if capturing the mercantile fantasies of Europe, maps and pamphlets soon began appearing in which New World beavers are drawn living in condominiums—dozens of future pelts crowded into separate apartments within one lodge. The beaver is the most prominent feature of the first seal of New York City, the seventeenth- century seal for New Amsterdam. When the British took over, the seal was revised to include a Pilgrim and an Indigenous man, but the beaver remained, right smack in the middle between the two. Canada’s first postage stamp featured a beaver, and the state of Oregon, founded in 1859, took the beaver for its state animal. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, established in 1861, made a beaver its mascot. So did at least one sports team in every state of the Union. More roads, cutoffs, boat launchings, towns, and developments are named after beavers than any other North American animal.
Some of the oldest animal effigies to have been found are of beavers, and the Shigir Idol, the earliest wooden carving in the world, was sculpted using a beaver’s lower jawbone. Throughout the ancient Middle East, beaver castor was used for medicinal purposes. In Iran, where beavers were called “water dogs” and considered sacred, they were protected by a system of fines; harming a beaver in ancient Persia could cost you 60,000 darics, although you could get out of it by killing one thousand snakes.
Yet the beaver’s ubiquity is matched only by its weirdness. Indeed, beavers are considered “behaviorally weird,” which means no one really knows when they started building dams. No one really understands how much intelligence, as opposed to instinct, is involved in that unique activity. Animal intelligence is measured by comparing the size of the animal’s brain to the animal’s overall body weight, something called the encephalization quotient, or EQ. Based on that simple ratio, beavers appear less cunning than rats or squirrels (though far better off than the bony-eared assfish, which has the smallest brain-to-body ratio of any vertebrate on the planet). But they have evolved in an intelligent way. Their eyes, ears, and nose are aligned, so that they swim like alligators, head barely visible, body sub-merged; yet unlike alligators, they do so not to hunt but to avoid becoming prey. Beavers can’t see well. Their primary sense is smell. A beaver uses its nose to locate the cinnamon smell of birch and the licorice tang of aspen. They communicate through scent, depositing the castor oil that they produce in two internal glands to mark territory and introduce themselves to potential mates. While the visual area of a beaver’s brain is small, a large area of their neocortex is dedicated to processing somatic sensory and auditory stimuli.
But are beavers intelligent creatures? It’s a mystery. Throughout history, humans have studied their lodges and dams and canals, their skills at fell-ing and transporting trees, their expertise at engineering. When three or four work together, they can roll a hundred- pound boulder and set it in their dam. Perhaps, like ants and bees, they have a kind of intelligence that we as humans simply cannot fathom.
Excerpted from Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America © 2022 Leila Philip and reprinted by permission from Twelve Books/Hachette Book Group.