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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


I found this…. Beaver stick

By Dean W Veall, on 16 October 2012

I found this… is a new mini-installation by the entrance to the Museum. In each of the six cabinets one member of our team has selected one object which they have uncovered something new about. Today…

Beaver StickBEAVER STICK! At the back of one of our cupboards I found this botanical specimen and it immediately caught my interest. Why a piece of wood in a zoological collection? Closer inspection revealed it was  covered in long thin bite marks and been chewed to points at both ends. There was only one conclusion, BEAVER STICK! But which species of beaver had carved this wood? Was it the Eurasian or the American beaver? Having only been here for about a month I was keen to prove myself, so I was determined to find out the species of beaver had made this. There are two ways to find this out; identify the species of tree the specimen came from and work out if the range of the tree overlaps with either species of beaver. Or, use some of our beaver skull specimens and identify the teeth marks and match it to the species.

Well that was the plan. Tree species identification could have been so easy, if only those damn beavers had left the tiniest bit of bark on the stick, instead they had stripped it clean. Big sigh. So to the other method of identification, attempting to match the bite marks (width, length etc) to the beaver species using some of the skulls in our collection. Out they came, two Eurasian, (Castor fiber) but no American beavers (Castor canadensis) . No luck, no luck. There was an extra specimen in the drawer, labelled “Castor capensis“, curious. This caught the interest of Grant Museum manager  Jack Ashby, “!Castor capensis!” he exclaimed – apparently there is no such thing [perhaps whoever wrote it had miscopied it from “canadensis” in some typically illegible museum curator handwriting]. Out came the callipers, there were measurements taken, shape of external nasal openings compared and references made. Upon this investigation it was declared that new knowledge had just been created as our beaver skulls had all been misidentified, our two specimens labelled Castor fiber, European beaver were in fact American beavers, Castor canadensis and our mystery Castor capensis, although a juvenile was in fact Castor fiber, a European beaver.

But we couldn’t actually use them to identify which species made the beaver stick.

And did I find out the species of tree the wood came from? No.

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