21 May 2010


Forget about ants, I have a new animal obsession: the beaver.  A few hours ago my Netflix account recommended--based on my interest in Blue Planet and Raising Arizona--that I watch the recently released DVD version of the 1988 IMAX starring the busy semi-aquatic builders. And because I dutifully do everything my Netflix tells me to, I watched it.

Beavers (The Biggest Dam Movie You Ever Saw) was cute; I'll give it that.  But beyond that, the movie is short, and the picture it paints of beaver life is painfully shallow.  It raised a lot more questions than it answered.  I know beavers make dams, but how?  How do they choose the spot?  How do they carry those huge trees?  How do they know where to put the wood?  Do the males and females take on different building roles?  How do they decide where to put their home?  What are the advantages for the beavers of the drastic changes they make in the ecosystem around them?  How do they rebuild when a bear attacks the dam??????????

I was also puzzled by the tameness of the interactions between the beavers, the cameras and the other animals in the film.  Why didn't the bear eat the beaver?  Why didn't the skunk scent the beaver?  How could there possibly be a situation where a beaver fells an aspen with a bear cub still in it????????

It turns out the answer to these latter three questions is simple and disappointing.  The movie was made with tame animals, beavers and all.  The tame beavers were taken to a pre-built dam, where half the movie was filmed.  The rest was shot in a studio!  What a drag, right?

So now I am desperate for more information about beavers. I haven't been able to find any more documentaries about them, and the Wikipedia page is not nearly enough to satisfy my appetite.  Did you know they build canals to float heavy building materials?  Or that they have a second room in their lodges in addition to the living area, which serves as a mudroom for coming in out of the pond?  The mud exterior to their homes is super-hard, because it freezes in the winter, and it keeps most predators out, but muskrats sometimes hang out inside the dam, entering and exiting through the same underwater tunnels used by the beavers themselves.  How cool!

The largest beaver dam in the world  (the picture on the left) is located in northern Alberta, Canada, and it's so big you can see it from space.  Ecologist Jean Thie discovered 2,800-foot-long structure by accident over ten years ago.  He told Discovery Channel News last week that beavers probably began construction on the dam almost 40 years ago.  When those beavers were starting to build, disco wasn't retro, platform shoes were unisex, and scientists were peeing their pants about the new "pocket calculators."

I'm starting to feel a little threatened here.  Not only have we been surpassed in globalization efforts by some ants from Argentina, now our industrious architectural exploits seem to pale in comparison to some rodents from Canada.  If you know of any beaver resources (keep it G-rated please...) let me know!


Glenn Harcourt said...

In this kind of situation, you can always start with a little good old natural history, for example and to wit this wonderful yreatise which I read many years ago and still ermember fondly: Enos A. Mills, In Beaver World (1 ed. 1913; repr. U.Nebraska Press, 1990). Mills, often cited as the "founder" of Rocky Mountain National Park, was a relentless observer of the beaver in Longs Peak Valley Colorado from 1884 until his death in 1922. In Beaver World, the fruit of these labors, is chatty, descriptive, not above a bit of gratuitous anthropomorphizing, lacking in statistical and systematic rigor -- in short, a great read full of really cool facts; and illustrated with the author's own photographs, maps, and diagrams. I real gem!! If you cannot find it, I think I have only ever seen it on the shelf at RMNP, I might be prevailed upon to lend you my copy...Glenn

zbuck said...

Full text online!!!! Thanks Glenn.

Karina Buck said...

Do you remember we went to see that film at the IMAX at the Natural History Museum after you fell through the beaver dam at Auntie Beth's?

Lucia said...

I saw this article yesterday: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/06/11/BA491DSOQP.DTL

Pretty exciting, huh?

zbuck said...

How cool! I need to go visit them! Let's do a field trip.

Lucia said...

That would be fun! Are you going to be around?