A reader commented on my June 24, 2015 post “Busy as a Beaver.” She said, “And what of the – possibly rural – myth that beavers have to keep gnawing on wood because if they stopped, their teeth would keep growing until one sad day, they’d have to slurp their food through a straw? Dear Researcher, can you please dig deep to find the answer?”
I dug deep and found more information (much of it originally from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Wildlife Notebook Series) about Castor canadensis than you would ever want to know, unless you’re a wildlife researcher. This is hardly surprising, since it was the lucrative trade in beaver pelts that caused the exploration and development of Canada and the establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 17th century. In 1975 the beaver was made the official emblem of Canada, the highest award ever bestowed on a rodent.
But the beaver earned that award. Between the years 1853 and 1877, the Hudson Bay Company harvested over 3 million beaver to sell in England. Beaver fur was in demand because it is so warm and soft. The outer layer consists of long glossy guard hairs, while the underneath fur is short, dense and fine. It’s quite likely the beaver would have become extinct, but for the fact that beaver hats in Europe became less fashionable than silk hats.
And now for the teeth: as with all rodents, a beaver’s teeth do grow continually during its life. The teeth are self-sharpening because of a hard orange enamel on the outer side and a softer inner side that wears more slowly. This wear pattern creates a chisel shape. The outer enamel is orange because iron has replaced calcium. This makes them unusually strong. They also have lips that can close behind their front teeth, allowing them to cut and chew wood below the water’s surface.
But I was not able to find out what would happen if a beaver had no wood to gnaw. I don’t think the situation would ever arise. Even if the beaver didn’t cut down trees, it has a vegetarian diet of woody plants and bark from branches to exercise its teeth on. And nobody can slurp bark and plants through a straw, so there’s no possibility of that happening. Unless, of course, some amiable human creates a combination blender/saw mill that provides lazy beavers with a kind of pre-digested pablum.
The beaver is a fascinating animal and if you want to read about it much more detail, go to this web site: http://fohn.net/beaver-pictures-facts/index.html
One last bit of interesting information: the beaver’s tail is broad, black, scaly, and flat, about a foot long and six inches wide. It is used as a rudder while swimming, as a third leg while standing upright, as a lever when dragging branches, as a warning signal when slapped on the water, and as a place for the body to store fat for the winter. It is said to taste very good, and at one time was considered a delicacy.
Well, a beaver hat to keep the ears warm, and beaver tail for lunch…what more could one ask for?