Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 25.djvu/22

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THANKS to the decrease of castor in value, owing to the substitutes which have been found in the skins of seal, nutria—the improved preparation of other peltry of little value, such as the hare and rabbit—and more than all in the use of silk in the manufacture of hats, a little breathing-time has been allowed the beaver, which a few years since bade fair to speedily become extinct.

Formerly inhabiting every part of North America possessed of forest-growth, at present it is found only in the wilder and least accessible regions of the continent. At the time the reindeer, musk-ox, mammoth, and rhinoceros roamed the temperate zone, beaver were abundant, and filled the country on every hand, from the Mexican Gulf to the Barren Grounds, with their works—wondrous monuments of patience and industry. Perhaps their fur helped to clothe the ignorant savage that eked out a precarious existence by means of game killed with flint-tipped arrows and javelins, and dismembered and divided by hatchets and knives of stone. Doubtless the broad tails were then, as now, esteemed delicate tidbits. And the wondrous instinct displayed may possibly have taught the primeval dweller the rudiments of architecture now exemplified in beautiful structures of wood and stone; for to this day we find some tribes, low in the scale of humanity and civilization, such as the Fischer Lapps and natives of Terra del Fuego, living in huts that, save in point of size, are exact counterparts of the dwellings of the beaver.

Of all quadrupeds, the beaver is one of the most peculiar and interesting. He is the only one that possesses membranes between the toes of the hind-feet, at the same time none on the fore ones—in fact, resembling a terrestrial mammal in front, and an aquatic one behind. When full grown, he exhibits a thick, heavy body over two feet in length, and from thirty to fifty pounds' weight, terminating in a full, compact, cat-like head, with heavy jaws provided with wondrous muscular development. The tail is oval, resembling closely the blade of a paddle, twelve or fourteen inches in length, and four or five in breadth, flattened both above and below, and covered with a thick dusky skin that at first glance appears to be protected by scales. The old writers were accustomed to tell us that this peculiar appendage was used as a trowel for plastering his dwelling or repairing his dam, as a maul for driving stakes, and as a vehicle for transporting loads. But modern science has proved the fallacy of such statements, and we now know that it serves but as a prop or fifth leg when sitting at work, or as scull and rudder while navigating the waters.

Generally, beaver are nocturnal in habits, mild and tranquil in dis-