Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists
March 4, 2011
Canada’s Five Cent Animal: Our Beaver, Past & Present
by Cathy Keddy
The Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists’ (MVFN) public lecture series, Biodiversity and Vital Connections for Fauna, Flora, and People, continues March 17 with the fifth presentation, “Canada’s Five Cent Animal: Our Beaver, Past & Present.” You do not need to be an expert to enjoy these lectures—just bring your curiosity or appreciation for wild nature.
The beaver, Castor canadensis, is Canada’s national animal. It is the second largest rodent in the world next to the capybara, another semi-aquatic rodent (native to South America). Trapped during the fur trade, the beaver played a key role in the exploration and settlement of our country. Historically beaver population in North America reached 60 to 90 million. It is hard to believe today that this species experienced a decline and almost became extinct in the early 1900s. In 1849 the beaver appeared on our first pictorial postage stamp (known as the ‘three-penny beaver’). By 1937 the beaver-on-lodge had made its debut on our nickle.
Generally, we take beavers for granted, but we are still in awe of their unusual tails, ability to overcome massive, solid tree trunks, and their dam engineering feats. Beavers have become more a part of our lives than we realize. Phrases such as “works like a beaver,” “busy beaver,” “eager beaver,” and the verb “to beaver,” are part of our everyday language. We are all familiar with the modern manifestation of the beaver, but how, where, and when did it evolve to become this particular animal? What pressures or circumstances led to such morphology and behaviour? What do vertebrate fossils, fossil beaver-cut wood, and other environmental evidence tell us about our beaver’s heritage and its relatives? Dr. Natalia Rybczynski, paleobiologist with the Canadian Museum of Nature and just back from a research exploration in Antarctica, will lead us on a journey from the beaver’s earliest ancestors, via modern evidence uncovered, to the making of this modern-day national animal.
The next time you are asked about our national animal, by those quite unfamiliar with the Canadian beaver, don’t be at a loss for words. Attend Dr. Rybczynski’s presentation “Canada’s Five Cent Animal: Our Beaver, Past & Present” and you will have a rich treasury of incredible stories to draw upon. She will be speaking at MVFN’s next lecture on Thursday, March 17 at 7:30 p.m., Almonte United Church, 106 Elgin St., Almonte. All are welcome ($5 fee for non-members). For more information please contact MVFN’s Program Chair Cathy Keddy at 613-257-3089.