The other day, coming back from Fresno on Highway 41, about .6 mile south of the Bates Station Road turnout just below the 1000 foot elevation sign (photo of the terrain, it’s not exactly the place you would expect to find beavers. I’ve never seen a beaver up close before, and the size of it shocked me. These things are huge, and they are very fat. And the paddle is very large. I looked down and saw a small stream flowing under the highway (see the stream on the not even a wolverine, can get into them, and a wolverine can get into about anything less secure than a locked bank vault. And I’m not sure if this is urban legend, but water engineers supposedly marvel at beaver dams. They look at them and say, “I can’t believe they did that.” The beaver is an expert at his dam-building. Experiments have been done by poking tiny holes in the dams, holes that would be hard to find or even discover that they existed. By nightfall, the beavers quickly discover the hole and patch it up. Beavers are actually very beneficial, and ecosystems in North America and Europe probably evolved with them. It’s thought that much of the rich bottomland in the US was created in part by beavers over thousands of years. Beaver dams remove pollutants, clean the water, are good for flood control, and regulate the water cycle. Here in California, that’s important. So streams and rivers here with beaver dams on them have lessened high flows in the rainy seasons (fewer floods) and increased flows in the dry season (more likely to flow all year instead of being seasonal as so many streams are here). After a few years, beavers abandon their dams as they cut down most of the small trees in the area. After they leave, the dam breaks down and the area turns into a wetland. Then it turns into a meadow as grasses and forbs move in. Next it becomes a riverine riparian forest, by which time, the beavers are back and the cycle begins again. The result is a creation of a serious of rich bottomlands created by all of the decayed wood at the bottom of the beaver pond. Beavers in the US and Canada were decimated by the fur trade for beaver pelts. I guess they are pretty easy to trap. The beaver pelts had many uses, but many were made into beaverskin hats. In Europe, beavers were also trapped out, mostly for the camphor or camphorum, a medicine that comes from the beaver. This medicine comes from beaver testicles. The beaver is killed and the beaver balls are chopped off. Then the beaver nuts are dried and ground up into castoreum which is apparently consumed as a medicine. It ‘s used as an analgesic. The castoreum comes from the salicin in the beaver’s diet, which comes from the willow trees that it eats. Salicylic acid from willows is the source of aspirin. There are two species of beaver, the Canada Beaver in the US and Canada and the European Beaver in Europe. The paddle is used to slap the surface of the water to warn the other beavers of danger in the form of humans or predators. The beaver is not much active by day, and it stays in the water if it is active. At night, it can leave water and wander. At this time it quite vulnerable to predators as it is slow-moving on land. Nevertheless, it is seldom taken by predators, and the beaver’s worst enemy is man. Beavers are now plentiful all over the US and Canada again after being nearly trapped to extinction in the 19th Century. They were transplanted to Tierra del Fuego, where they lacked predators and went invasive, devastating the landscape. The trees on the island do not coppice, so they can’t withstand the beavers’ depredations. Tierra del Fuego is now trying to get rid of its beavers. In Europe, wild beaver populations still exist in Northern Germany and in parts of Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland. They survived only in Norway, but from there they were reintroduced to Sweden and Finland. The Danish population was reintroduced 10 years ago, 1000 years after their extinction. It is now being transplanted to various other places in Europe, including England (see here and here), 500 years after their extinction. There are plans to reintroduce beavers to Scotland this year, 400 years after going extinct. As an aside, traditionally Catholics were not supposed to eat the meat of land animals on Friday, so Catholics often ate fish instead. There was a big debate in the Catholic Church about beavers. This was resolved by the Church concluding that beavers were fish for the purposes of dietary law. Catholics are idiots, but they are not that stupid. They know full well that a beaver is not a fish. But for dietary law, a beaver was considered a “fish” because any land animal that spends most of its time in water was regarded as a fish. Hence, Catholics could eat beaver on Fridays. I can see the dirty jokes now, commenters. Beaver, like skunk actually tastes pretty good if you clean it very carefully to keep the skunk-like musk gland from contaminating the meat. While skunk tastes like (Guess what?) chicken, beaver tastes like lean beef, but I’ve yet to take the plunge. However, with Vatican II, I believe that Catholics no longer have to abstain from meat on Fridays? Good overview of the beaver in California, but the map is wrong (the beaver ranges further than indicated).
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