Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/December 1884/Correspondence


Messrs. Editors;

I HAVE been highly entertained, and gained some new ideas, by reading Dr. Stockwell's article on "The Beaver and his Works" in the "Monthly" for May, 1884. I have myself long since made the acquaintance of the beaver, but in different regions from that studied by Dr. Stockwell, Perhaps that is the reason why my observations in some particulars differ from his. The beaver has, or had, such a wide range, and has been subjected to such different and ever-changing environment, that it is not at all extraordinary if his habits changed and differed more or less in widely separated localities. The doctor remarks that modern science has disproved the statements that the beaver used his tail for a trowel and as a vehicle for transporting loads. How has "modern science" disproved these statements? Has it not been, only, by the failure of some later naturalists to observe the beaver's habits which were reported by older observers? Hence, they assumed that, what they had not seen, no one else ever saw, and on such negative evidence the genius of the beaver has come to be underrated. I will venture to suggest that no modern naturalist has seen quite all the beavers at work, nor examined quite all the beaver-dams, that existed during the last fifty years. Great variation in habits of life in an animal as intellectual and full of resources as the beaver might be expected during that process of persecution to which it has been subjected, and which has reduced its numbers more than a thousand-fold.

In the summer of 1865, while resting late on a cloudy, sultry afternoon near the banks of a stream south of the Niobrara, in Northeastern Nebraska, I had the gratificacation of seeing a singular beaver-performance. I was sitting on a fallen tree, when I heard a peculiar noise over a rise beyond me. Creeping to the top of the slight elevation, and peeping over, I saw a dozen beavers rolling a small log or thick pole of Cottonwood in the direction of a stream. A few were pulling in front, but most of them were pushing from behind. Finally they rolled the log into a shallow depression, whose farther side was much steeper than the side from which they brought it. Their united strength was insufficient to roll it out of this depression, and it was most curious to watch the various manoeuvres to accomplish this purpose. First they cut off about eighteen inches of the thick end, and then made another attempt, and again failed.

Then they came together almost in a circle as if for consultation. Suddenly they separated, went back to the log, and rolled it about sixteen inches back in the direction from which they brought it. Five of the beavers now went in front, stretched out their tails toward the log, when those behind rolled it on the tails of those in front. The five beavers in front now pulled, those behind pushed, and in a few minutes the log was drawn out of the depression on to comparatively smooth ground. When this was accomplished the imprisoned tails in front were released, and the tails were handled and examined as if they were hurt. Rolling was then resumed. This satisfied me that the stories which I had heard from trappers and Indians about the beaver sometimes using his tail to move burdens was correct.

Again in September, 1870, while attempting to cross a tributary of the Logan River in Wayne County, Nebraska, on the breast of a beaver-dam, owing to a "circus" commenced by my mules, a small portion of the left side of the dam was damaged. Camping near by at dusk, I hid myself among the tall weeds, and waited for developments. The beavers soon appeared, and commenced the process of repair. They carried weeds and mud, and closed up even the tracks left by the mules, and smoothed down the sides of the dam. In doing this, I could distinctly see one, but only one, draw his tail backward and forward over the freshly placed earth and mud.

It is a mistake to suppose that the beaver only resides in or near wooded districts. At the time of which I speak there were still beaver at work on tributaries of the Logan, where there was no timber growing of any kind within twenty miles. In these places they built their dams of tall sunflower-stems, and the stems of other plants that grew luxuriantly on and near the banks. They laid the stems in the water, mainly lengthwise, up and down the stream, bound them together with mud, and made them amazingly strong.

In regard to the manner in which the beavers cut down trees there is some variation. A few years ago in Middle Park, Colorado, I measured the stumps of forty-two trees that were cut down at various times by beavers. In all these cases, except one, the gouging was done to near the center, equally on all sides. In the one exception the cutting was done beyond the center on one side, and only one fifth as far on the other. In Northeastern Nebraska, where, during seven years, I measured stumps of trees cut down by beavers as opportunity offered, out of two hundred and seventeen measurements of trees, from two to eighteen inches thick, seventy-nine were cut equally on all sides; ninety-two were cut from one fourth to one half inch farther in on one side than the other, and forty-six considerably exceeded this difference. I do not know the cause of this variation, but suspect it comes from attempts to fell trees in certain directions.

Even the houses of the beavers are subject to occasional variation. When going through some of their dwellings in a beaver dam north of Grand Lake, Colorado, I was struck by one exception to the type-form described by Dr. Stockwell. It had two distinct stories, the lower being partly under water, and partly filled with twigs of quaking-asp. The upper story had the rough walls smoothed inside by having every crevice filled with dead leaves, the whole being almost as smooth as the interior of a bird's nest, I examined many other beaver-houses along the Grand and the tributaries of Grand Lake, but failed to find any that were as elegantly fashioned in the interior as this one.

The facts detailed that came under my observation have confirmed me in the heretical opinion that the older observers, who studied the beaver at close range, drew as little for their facts on their imaginations as the modern naturalists.

Samuel Aughey.
Lincoln, Nebraska.


Messrs. Editors:

The following sketch of a change of habit in a species of snake, the Liopeltis vernalis, will doubtless prove interesting to some of the many readers of your valuable "Monthly":

A week or two ago, while walking in the garden, my attention was attracted by the curious actions of the cat, which seemed to be suffering from an epileptic fit, jumping, rolling, and scratching at a great rate. A closer approach revealed that he was busily engaged in trying to throw off a beautiful green snake (the Liopeltis vernalis), which in its efforts to escape the claws of its foe, had coiled itself around the cat's body, much to the latter's discomfort. There was no apparent effort at constriction made by the snake, who was evidently waiting for a good chance to escape. Finally, the snake uncoiled itself and tried to seek safety by flight. It was caught, however, while crossing a wide path between the bushes, and handled unmercifully. While struggling under a lilac-bush, about six feet high, a sudden thought, born of necessity, seemed to animate the snake. It twitched itself loose from the grasp of the cat, made for the slender trunk of the lilac-bush, or rather shrub, encircled it, and in a few seconds had made its way to the very top of the shrub, across which it lay extended, watching the futile endeavors of the cat to climb the slender stem of the shrub. After repeated failures, the cat lay down at the foot of the bush, like a tiger waiting for his prey. The resemblance was very striking, the cat being of a tawny gray color with dark bands, a perfect tiger en miniature. This blockade continued more than an hour, when the snake took advantage of the momentary inattention of the cat, and quietly glided on to the tops of the adjoining gooseberry-bushes, until he had put about ten feet between his foe and himself. He then glided to the ground, and made his escape, unmolested, much to the grief of my little girl, who wished to have the beautiful little reptile as a pet. The cat continued his blockade for some time longer. He could not be coaxed away until I took him up and held him among the top branches of the shrub, letting him see that the snake was gone.

While every snake has sufficient sense to take hold of anything on which it may be placed, it is very rare for the ordinary ground-snakes to so forsake or modify their terrestrial habit as to voluntarily seek protection above the ground, and thereby cultivating an arboreal habit. This same specimen, under similar circumstances, will, without doubt, pursue a similar course of action, and in time produce a race of terrestrio-arboreal Liopeltis vernalis, which, having an advantage over their less highly gifted brethren, according to the principle of the survival of the fittest, should become the final normal type of Liopeltis vernalis.

G. A. Brennan.
Roseland, Cook County, Illinois.


Messrs. Editors: Being interested in science, permit me to say that if you, or any one, proposes to collect facts relative to last Sunday's earthquake, I am quite sure it was felt here. During the afternoon I experienced a strange and unwonted quiver in the floor of my study and a slight movement of the window-sash. It drew my attention at the time as something different from what I had ever observed before. My room is so situated that no movements of persons about the house can shake the floor, and I am certain it was the earthquake. I neglected to note the time, or to suspect the probable cause, being very busy. But another member of my family noticed a strange movement in the house, and crackling sounds in the ceiling of another building were heard.

It is stated also to have been felt at a point twelve miles south of here. This place is eighteen miles south of Rutland, and we call it about two hundred and fifteen miles north of New York by rail, and the rail-road route is quite direct—certainly near two hundred.

L. D. Mears.
Danby, Rutland County, Vermont,
August 13, 1884.


Messrs. Editors: I have just read "Scientific Philanthropy," in the August number of "The Popular Science Monthly." While I agree with the general tenor of the article, yet I wish to make objection to some of the statements.

Sociology is getting to be an exact science; and those who wish to write upon it will have to be much more careful as to what they assert than they have been in the past. All positions are criticised, and nothing will pass but what is true at all times, under all conditions, and in all circumstances.

Mr. Vance says, page 482, "With successive differentiations of individual functions and pursuits, there comes an increasing specialization of each differentiated member of society, and hence industrial virtues and vices, which the parent fixes for the child by heredity, lead to the existence of two very different classes in community—the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak, the rulers and the ruled."

Now, so far as certain industrial virtues or vices fixed by heredity being the source of the two classes, the rich and poor, the rulers and the ruled, I for one entirely deny.

Those classes, as we know them now, are maintained by certain social institutions that give special advantages to those in possession, and prevent others, however possessed of all necessary virtues, from reaching the place for which they were fitted. Of that there are so many proofs that there is only the difficulty of choice.

In England, advancement in the army is only possible to a certain class. In France, where class distinction was abolished, the best officers of the Revolution rose from the ranks.

In the United States, where chances are more equal, it is the common observation that men who come here with money lose it, those who come poor become rich. Does any one suppose that Vanderbilt would be the rich man he is, or Bennett own the "New York Herald," if they had depended upon their inherited virtues for their possession?

But that which can be easily proved is that when a man has reached the upper class, either of riches or rulers, he next strives to pass to his children, not the virtues that brought him there, but the results of his labors; and not only to pass them, but to so arrange matters that the benefits may not be squandered through any follies of theirs.

And when not one man, nor one thousand, but untold generations strive in one special direction, the result is not difficult to perceive.

This result is a class of rich and of rulers that not only hold possession, but who have so intrenched themselves that it is almost impossible to dislodge them, and the battle that is coming on is simply one to equalize the chances, so that the parents will have to transmit the virtues as well as the possession.

There is an undercurrent, deep and strong, that will make itself felt some day before long. Mr. Ward's book, "Dynamic Sociology," is a precursor of it. Those who would check it must be more accurate than the general run of writers on "sociology."

Mr. Vance says, furthermore, page 493; "The sentimentalist employs in sociology the empiric method; in ethics, he builds upon intuition; in political economy, he favors the principle of cooperation."

It may be true of the sentimentalist, but the natural inference that those who favor cooperation are sentimentalists is a great mistake. The principle that works in favor of cooperation is to avoid the immense waste of competition.

Albert Chavannes,
Adair Creek, Tenn., August 16, 1884.