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The beaver is one of Canada’s most recognizable symbols, but what is this creature and how did it become so inextricably tied into Canadian Culture?
The beaver, also known as Castor Canadensis, is the largest rodent in North America and the second-largest rodent in the world. They are known for using their teeth to chew through threes; a single beaver can fell 216 trees up to 40 cm in diameter in a single year! One thing you may not know about beavers is that their teeth never stop growing, and gnawing on trees helps keep their teeth from becoming overgrown.
When early explorers first landed in North America, they quickly realized that they could greatly profit from hunting beavers and trading their pelts. The pelts could be used to make felt hats, a popular fashion in Europe at the time, and soon fur traders were selling beaver pelts in Europe for 20 times the original purchase price! At its peak, 100’000 pelts were being shipped to Europe each year.
Because pelts were so lucrative, it was inevitable they the beaver as a symbol would become so tied to Canada. Sir William Alexander was the first person to include the beaver in a coat of arms, followed by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1678, who put four beavers on the shield of its coat of arms. By the late 1600s, the beaver as a symbol was directly associated with the land that would eventually become Canada. The beaver was also featured on Canada’s first postage stamp, the Three Penny Beaver, in 1851.
By the mid-19th century, over-hunting had resulted in the decimation of the beaver population and the animal was close to extinction. Thankfully, at the same time, felt hats went out of style and demand for beaver pelts nearly disappeared. Over time, the beaver population has recovered and thrived, with help from conservation efforts, and has a permanent home on the Canadian nickel.
Did You Know?
Today’s beavers are fairly small, weighing 16-32 kilograms and measuring 1.3 meters from snout to tail. But in the Pleistocene, giant beavers shared the same territory as mammoths and mastodons. These beavers weighed 360 kilograms and measured 3 meters in length! Very few giant beaver fossils have been found in Canada, but the ones that have been found were uncovered in the Yukon, Winnipeg, New Brunswick, and in Toronto’s Don Valley.
Additional Fun Fact
National Beaver Day in Canada is the last Friday in February, and International Beaver Day is April 7th. Don't forget to celebrate this symbol of Canadian history!
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