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June 1, 2024 47 mins

Beavers are incredible creatures and significant ecosystem manipulators, but they’ve also been subject to various written and illustrative inaccuracies. Medieval bestiaries often depict the common beaver as a weird-looking dog that bites off its own testicles when pursued by mounted hunters. In this classic episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind, Rob and Joe explore the meaning of these inaccuracies as well as the actual biological wonder of North American and Eurasian beavers. (part 2 of 2, originally published 05/18/2023)

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Speaker 1 (00:06):
Hey, you welcome to Stuff to.

Speaker 2 (00:07):
Blow your Mind.

Speaker 1 (00:08):
My name is Robert Lamb.

Speaker 3 (00:09):
And I am Joe McCormick, and it's Saturday. Time to
go into the vault for an older episode of the show.
This one today is from May eighteenth, twenty twenty three,
and it's part two of our series on the Beaver,
a thrilling, strange, wonderful animal far more amazing and bizarre
than you might have thought. Can your heart stand the

shocking facts?

Speaker 1 (00:33):
All right, let's dive right in.

Speaker 4 (00:37):
Welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind, a production of iHeartRadio.

Speaker 1 (00:47):
Hey you, welcome to Stuff to Blow your Mind. My
name is Robert.

Speaker 3 (00:50):
Lamb and I'm Joe McCormick, and today we are back
with part two of our series on the Beaver.

Speaker 1 (00:57):
Yeah. In the last episode, we hopefully gave you a newfound,
improved and reinvigorated appreciation for the common beaver, the world's
second largest living rodent and a tireless ecosystem engineer.

Speaker 3 (01:09):
That's right. Last time we focused mainly on the real
life biology, behavior, and ecological role of the beaver, So
if you haven't listened to part one, you should probably
go back and check that one out first. I think
that will give you a richer understanding of the stuff
we're going to be talking about today. But for a
very brief recap, Yeah, beavers are large. They're the second
largest extant rodent after the capybara. Beavers have iron in

their teeth, perfect for chewing through wood to cut down
trees and for gnawing off pieces of vegetation. Beavers of
course eat vegetation their herbivores, and their diet includes foliage
but also the bark and the outer layers of soft
wood from tree branches and trunks. Beavers of course build
amazing structures. They dam waterways to change the characteristics of

flowing waterways to sort of like create ponds, redirect water flow,
and so forth to deepen water channels. And they also
build these essentially impenetrable lodges with underwater entrances and exits
for their own housing and protection. And these constructions also
allow underwater storage of caches of vegetation to provide food

throughout the winter. And then finally, we discussed several studies
of what might or might not be considered tool use
in beavers. This was a lot of fun, including we
had a long digression on the so called stick displays
where some beavers in particular populations is not common to
all beavers of either of the extant species, but this

was documented among some Eurasian beavers in Norway. They would
pick up a stick and they would shake it, shake
it up and down while holding it in the mouth
and forepaws. The researchers believed this was to demonstrate strength
in order to drive away potential antagonists, maybe other beavers
encroaching onto their territory. And of course we ended up

highlighting the most impressed of the stick shaking beaver's a beautiful,
powerful warrior of the wasteland named Beergit.

Speaker 1 (03:07):
Yes her name, I had to look this up. Her
name and apparently means power, strength, vigor, and virtue. I
mean the other beaver in that study that's not as
as impressive the second place shake. The second place was Froda.
Frodo's name means clever, learned, and wise. And this is also,
like I said, this is related to Frodo, Like Frodo

is like a variation of this name that Tolkien used
in the Lord of the Rings.

Speaker 3 (03:32):
That makes sense. Yeah. However, while the real life biology
of the beaver is truly fascinating. What actually first got
us interested in this topic was something you came across,
rob which was the pattern of deeply off the mark
illustrations of beaver's in medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, just so

far off the mark in depicting this animal. You wonder
how it happened.

Speaker 1 (04:00):
Yeah, we got into a little bit and discussed how
we have to take into account that when we do
have one variety of beavers in North America and the
other variety in Eurasia, you know, not everyone would have
had direct exposure to it. You have that game of
telephone taking place about these species depending on illustrations and
second and third hand accounts. Then there's the added fact
that beavers are largely nocturnal. They live out often in

very remote circumstances, so the average even observer may not
get to observe them that closely. And then, as we'll
discuss in this episode, even more, there are additional elements
of their physiology that may mystify someone who is observing
them in the wild or trying to make sense of
their bodies as the carcass is processed.

Speaker 3 (04:46):
Yeah, another thing, though, is that the Eurasian beaver was
once hunted near to extinction. Its populations have bounced back
significantly since then, since the twentieth century, but it came
kind of close for the Eurasian, like the hunter has
really got over on them for a while.

Speaker 1 (05:03):
Yeah. North American beavers were also in bad shape, and
two of the main drivers for this. One of them
is beaver hats in beaver fur. I'm to understand that
the beaver hat going out of style helped out a lot,
but there's another major beaver product, beaver derived product we're
going to discuss in this episode that also threatened these species.

So yeah, these are going to be important, especially when
we talk about a particular detail of various bestiaries and
illuminated manuscripts that show beavers or alleged beavers. Some of
these are very strange beaver. They look more like a
deer or a dog, or a lion or you name it.
But at any rate, the main perplexing detail is that
they are depicted chewing off their own testicles whilst being

pursued by a human hunter.

Speaker 3 (05:53):
I thought we should mention and describe a few of
these actual illustrations and the manuscripts they come from. So
I came across a post about this on the British
Library's Medieval Manuscript's blog. I love the British Library's blogs,
by the way, they often are wonderful resource. But this
post is from November seventh, twenty twelve. It's called Beaver's

on the Run by Nicole Eddie, and it includes a
number of illustrations, a couple that we alluded to at
the beginning of part one of this series, and several
that I think we haven't talked about yet, but none
of which have we featured in detail. So the author
of this blog post says you can usually recognize a
beaver in a medieval bestiary, which seemed at first like

a very odd statement, because most of these drawings look
absolutely nothing like the real animal, not even a little,
But she goes on to explain you can recognize them
because they are always depicted the same way in a
characteristic or stereotyped scene quote on the run, pursued by

a hunter who is frequently blowing a horn and accompanied
by hunting dogs. And just as you said, Rob, we
can add to that image the fact that they are
often depicted either discarding or in the middle of biting
off their own testicles while in hot pursuit several examples.
Let's start with one we briefly alluded to in Part one.

So this is a miniature from a Latin bestiary originating
in England from the second or third quarter of the
thirteenth century. The manuscript is known as Sloane thirty five
forty four. So what we see in a miniature with
the Latin text all around is a sort of rectangle
of red background decorated with these three leaf clover shapes.

And then we have what appears to be some kind
of big cat, maybe a mountain lion. Compared to the
human and the dog in this drawing, it is about
the size of a horse. Also, it has a horse's tail.
Did you notice that has like a hairtail?

Speaker 1 (08:00):
This does not even look like a fish tail. As
we mentioned before some depictions of beavers, they often have
almost like a mermaid quality to them.

Speaker 3 (08:08):
Of course, beavers do have interesting unusual tails. They have
the flat tail, which aids them in swimming, but they
also use for a type of signaling known as water slapping,
where they slap the surface of the water to make
loud sounds, and this is use for social reasons to
signal to the other beavers around them that may be
a predator or a rival beaver from outside the family

group is approaching their territory.

Speaker 1 (08:31):
I will say this about this particular quote unquote beaver.
The posture here with feet back, rear feet on the ground,
front feet elevated, and this tail as horsey as it looks,
it is kind of going down and out, which is
at least vaguely reminiscent of the way that beavers will
often walk if they're carrying something, you know, with that

tail helping them to balance and their front legs are
up helping to carry something.

Speaker 3 (09:00):
That would be fortunate if that was the artist's intention.
But I think what's being shown here is a horsehair
styled tail like flapping in the wind as the beaver runs.

Speaker 1 (09:09):
If it were not for the vulgar air as we'll
discuss regarding the eating of the testicles or the biting
of the testicles here, this is otherwise, I think a
beautiful image. I like the use of the like the red,
like the deep crimson behind it.

Speaker 3 (09:24):
Oh but wait, we didn't get to the animal's head yet.
So it's got horse sized body, horse looking tail, but
with feline paws and an approximately leonine head like a
mountain lion's head, but also with a snake neck. It's
kind of a dragon like. The neck is curving around
and it appears to be covered in maybe feathers or scales,

and the neck is curving all the way around for
the head to reach back and yes, bite its own testicles.
While the beast is in mid spring, it's leaping through
the air and biting while it's aloft, it's its front
paws are off the ground.

Speaker 1 (09:59):
It is range ima, chef. You had no background on this,
you would just think this is a fantastic creature.

Speaker 3 (10:05):
Yeah. Meanwhile, the hunting dog is after it, of course,
sort of barking, pulling. Maybe is that a leashure? I
can't quite tell, But there's a hunter also a dude
standing there looking kind of like a hungover George Washington,
and he is blowing an upturned hunter's horn.

Speaker 1 (10:21):
Yeah. All the eyes in this image look kind of bloodshot,
which adds an interesting effect to it.

Speaker 3 (10:27):
Okay, next image for us to discuss. This is from
a work known as the Rochester Bestiary from England around
the year twelve thirty, in a manuscript called Royal twelve f.
This one is a lot more colorful. Here, the hunt
takes place on a green hill with a golden sky
in the background and trees that look like asparagus. The

hunter has blonde surfer hair and wears a blue tunic.
He really does. It's kind of surfery, isn't it. It's
kind of Owen Wilson hair. Yeah, and he's blowing his horn.
He's carrying either a sword or a club of some
kind in the other hand from the horn. The dogs
are howling in pursuit. The beaver is once again sort
of a serpentine lion, with the long scaly neck twisting

all the way back around biting off the genitalia, but
with a different face this time. The beaver's face here
is kind of sad and porky, like a like a
lion pig muttering geez not again.

Speaker 1 (11:24):
Yeah, this is another strange one where the beaver looks
more like a camel or perhaps you know, some variation
of prehistoric mammal.

Speaker 3 (11:32):
Yeah, now I want to get into some ones that
have more differences. The next one has actually no testicle biting.
This is from an herbal medicine manual called Tractatus de
Herbis from Salerno, which is in Italy, produced between twelve
eighty and thirteen ten. The manuscript is called Egerton seven
forty seven. Here the hunter is a wizard. That interesting.

He's wearing a pointy wizard hat, and he has huge hands,
one of which which is like up in front of
his face, almost as if he's marveling at the hand,
like how did my hand get this way? What has
become of me?

Speaker 1 (12:08):
Yeah? This image has a kind of childlike wonder to it,
especially when we're describing the beaver.

Speaker 3 (12:14):
That's right, right, So, yeah, the wizard hunter has gigantic
hands bigger than his head. He's got his horns slung
around his shoulder. He's about to heave a spear. Interesting,
I guess there was spear hunting of beavers maybe, But
he's got a spear like cocked back ready to throw it.
And then the hunter, the dogs, and the beaver are
all standing in what looks like a field of spinach plants.

Like there are these green forking plants interspursed all around.
I don't know if that's supposed to be the kind
of vegetation growing in the landscape that has been altered
by the proximity of a beaver dam. And then one
of the dogs is gigantic and the other is not
that gigantic. And then the beaver is a horse, and

I mean, I mean that it's not like a horse.
The beaver is a horse. It's just horse.

Speaker 1 (13:01):
Yeah, a kind of shaggy looking horse with I believe
visible testicles.

Speaker 3 (13:06):
Oh yeah, not just visible. They're sort of in bold
compared to the rest of the illustration. Do you know
what I'm saying. Yeah, Yeah, they're like filled in a
darker color than anything else. So the beaver horse is
not biting them off, but they're just like they're very
prominent and they're almost perfectly centered in the illustration.

Speaker 1 (13:27):
Yeah, maybe the dogs got to him before he could,
in this narrative get rid of them.

Speaker 3 (13:33):
Okay, This next one I thought was really funny. This
is from another English best year a twelfth century, in
a manuscript called Stowe ten sixty seven. It's not fully colored,
in just a line drawing. The hunter looks like he's
dancing kind of. He looks, you know, jolly, like he's moving,
he's feeling the rhythm, and he's blowing his horn and
pointing a single finger at the beaver with his one hand.

You see the pointing hand. I don't know why. That
was really funny to me. But the beaver, meanwhile, is
a dog. It's just fully a dog, but with one
major variation with weird bulbous eye sockets bulging out of
his head over the snout. And we were trying to
figure out which Star Wars alien this dog looked like.

I eventually realized I was sort of thinking, it looks
like the dog version of the Zando Zan assassin from
the Last Starfighter.

Speaker 1 (14:25):
Yeah, yeah, I can see that, and I took a
I was like, something was about this was ringing Star
Wars for me as well. So I had the best
ares some of a couple of Star Wars best areas
out anyway for the monster fact I'm working on for
this week. So I was like, what is it reminding
me of? And I think it's reminded me of of
Issue tib. This is a strange kind of avian or

beaked looking creature that's in the background at Jaba's palace,
but has also subsequently been used in like comics and
on the Clone Wars and stuff like that.

Speaker 3 (14:59):
This was one of the those where you showed me
an image and I was like, oh, I have seen
this before, but I can't remember from where. It's really
kind of in the background, but yeah, Isshu tub is
like in Return of the Jedi, the I found a
shot of him like back sort of behind Luke's head
while Luke is pointing a blaster at Jaba.

Speaker 1 (15:16):
He's not, in my opinion, one of the more interesting
Jaba's Palace aliens. Like I didn't have him as a figure,
which maybe that's because I didn't find him interesting, or
maybe I don't find him interesting because I don't have
the connection with the toy.

Speaker 3 (15:30):
Well, anyway, do you get back to the beaver in
this drawing, which again is just a dog. It's interesting
because he's not biting his testicles here, they're floating in
the air behind him, as if the alien dog beaver
has sort of projectile defecated them in the hunter's direction.
You see, they're like a floating four leaf clover in

the air.

Speaker 1 (15:52):
The four leafed aspect of the testicle is interesting, and
I think that will be of note when we get
into the actual anatomy of the lower regions of the beaver.

Speaker 3 (16:03):
Now, the examples don't stop there. We could go on
naming many more, but I think you get the idea.
There was one thing I just wanted to mention further
because it's kind of interesting variation, and that's an illustration
of a beaver hunt from the Queen Mary Salter, an
early fourteenth century manuscript called Royal two B. And in
this one, the beaver again looks nothing like a beaver,

but in a different way. This time it's just a fox.
It's yeah, would you say it looks like a gray fox?

Speaker 1 (16:32):
Yeah, it looks like a fox.

Speaker 3 (16:33):
The hunter approaches with an axe propped up on his shoulder,
and the beaver lies on his back, exposing his belly. Interesting.
Apparently this was another common motif in these medieval illustrations
of beavers, in addition to beaver's biting off their own testicles. Allegedly,
this would happen they would lie on their back and

expose their belly after they had previously bitten them off,
or after they had been harvested by a previous hunter
and the beaver had survived. So the beaver here is
revealing I haven't got what you're looking for. And then
the hunter in this image, the hunter does look kind
of annoyed. Doesn't he He's like, ah, what for real?

Speaker 1 (17:13):
He does these guys hand up like ah, man chase
this critter down in the woods and it doesn't have
the goods anymore.

Speaker 3 (17:21):
But in the medieval lore of beaver hunts, the idea
was that the beaver is clever. It knows what the
hunter is looking for, and the beaver is thinking, oh,
if I can show off that I don't have what
the hunter needs, it won't kill me.

Speaker 1 (17:31):
Yeah. Now, this is going to be interesting to reflect
on it in a bit. When we talk about beaver aggression,
I can only imagine that this idea of the cornered
beaver being a docile creature, yes, is an extreme exaggeration
and inaccuracy.

Speaker 3 (17:50):
So this imagery is obviously a lot of fun. But
rob would you, I think it's safe to say, I
hope you'll agree that the chomping, off, dropping, shooting, projectile,
pooping of testicles, none of this reflects any biological reality.
This is not something beavers actually do, or ever actually did.

Speaker 1 (18:08):
Correct. Yeah, this is, as we'll discuss in a bit.
It's referred to as the vulgar error. At times, the
error is based on some definite biological realities. Concerning the beaver.
But they did not do this. Yeah, this is not
something they did. This is not something I think any

animal does. So before we get into exactly why, though,
we have to talk about what they were after with
all of this. They were after castorium.

Speaker 3 (18:38):
The hunters were Yes, the hunters were.

Speaker 1 (18:41):
After castorium, a product derived from beavers. I believe we
mentioned this briefly in the last episode. But the basic
reality here is beavers keep their hide waterproof via oily
secretions from their cast or glands. Each beaver, male or
female has a pair of these along with a pair
of glands. So so far castor glands anal glands, one

pair of each. This alone makes me think back to
that sort of four clothed testicle that has dropped in
one of those eliminated manuscript details we were discussing.

Speaker 3 (19:16):
Yeah, that's the four sac that's being chucked at the hunter.

Speaker 1 (19:20):
Yeah. Now I found a great article of great short
but detailed article with illustrations about the glands of the beaver.
This is from nineteen seventy eight by Gerald E. Svenson,
and it's titled castor and anal Glands of the Beaver
and was published in the Journal of Mammalogy, and it's
on jay Store. It's free to access. If you really

want to go in depth on this and see the
very helpful illustrations, I definitely recommend it. But the author
here says, quote, these glands liberate odoriferous products that may
be used in the construction of scent mounts and in
scent communication.

Speaker 3 (20:00):
This will sort of connect to what we talked about
in the previous episode about the territoriality observed in the
Eurasian beavers, where a family group would build a lodge
in a dam and it would sort of police the
borders of its area to keep rivals out, and one
of the things it would do in order to indicate
the borders of its area is do scent marking. And

often it was observed that along with the stick shaking behavior,
when a beaver felt its territory might be being encroached on
by another beaver from outside the group, it would engage
in additional scent marking. It would start to mark either
with anal glands or castorium.

Speaker 2 (20:40):

Speaker 1 (20:41):
So both anal and castor glands are in a cavity
that the author here describes as being similar to a scrotum,
and it quote testes lie anterior to the glands in
the distal region of the nguin Old canal. The testes
protrude into the gland cavity in sexually mature males that
are separated from the glands by tissue of the terminal

end of the Ingenol canal and the lining of the
gland cavity. Okay, I realize that's a lot and joe
for you. Anyway, I included an illustration from this paper
that I think makes a little more sense of this.
This is one of two illustrations that the author provides
and a reminder. We're very much in the kloaca here.

Speaker 3 (21:25):
Right, So in the back of the beaver, sort of
between the tail and the hind legs, we have the
gland cavity and it contains these different organs, the anal
gland and the castor gland.

Speaker 1 (21:38):
Yes, now, he points out that anal glands are posterior
to the castor glands, and each gland opens independently via ducts.
So the castor glands, however, don't open directly to the outside. Instead,
they hook up to the urethra and open into the
beaver's cloaca. However, imagine this will be key to what

we're discussing here. Quote. Contraction of the muscle sheath also
forces the papillary end of the anal gland to protrude
from the kloeca. I do not think the same is
true of the castor glands proper, but again I'm thinking
of some of that basically getting back to this idea
of glands something like testicles, or they could be seen

as testicles emerging from the cloaca of the beaver, and
then it's not there again, you know. Common feature of
these illustrations interesting though, these if I'm understanding everything correctly,
these would be the anal glands, not the castor glands.

Speaker 3 (22:39):
But the illustrator doesn't understand. It's either one they think
they're seeing gonads and then like they're there again, and
then then they're gone.

Speaker 1 (22:46):
Right now. As for the castorium itself, I've seen it
described as butter like. Svenson describes it as yellowish, but
then it turns brown when exposed to air and sunlight.
That urine washes the cast st or out in a
quote unquote composite mixture that has a pungent odor. He writes,

the secretions from both pairs of glands quote can be
involved in scent mound construction, but that the method of
producing these secretions differs based on what we've just discussed.
So anal gland secretions are rubbed on something, they're expressed,
and then the beaver you know, gets to rub it
on the rock or the tree trunk, whatever, While castorium

is essentially urinated out, so beavers use castorum to mark
territory and to waterproof their fur. But since ancient times
humans have found other uses for the substance. To harvest it,
it can be milked from a live animal apparently, I've
read that they frequently expel it when handled, though again

huge caveat here. Don't go trying to handle beavers. I'm
not sure under what circumstances it is even and recommended
to do this, but leave it to the professionals. Professional
beaver handlers, if they exist, are the ones that need
to be doing this. Most of what we're talking about here,
especially with these illustrations and historical collection of castorium, though,

involves of course killing the beaver, and this requires the
glands to be removed post mortem and then smoked for
preservation Joe, I've included a photo. You can find lots
of photos of castorium that has been dried or smoked,
and it essentially looks like some sort like you might
imagine some sort of like like dried up gland, some

sort of like, you know, mummified scrotum sort of idea here.

Speaker 3 (24:43):
You ever like a drop of fingerling potato while you're
preparing food and it rolls under the cabinet and you
don't realize it's there, and then you find it a
few months later when you're cleaning, and it's all shriveled
up into Yes, like a mummy of a potato. That's
what it looks like.

Speaker 1 (24:57):
Yes, Now getting into this idea of the alleged testicle drop,
this has been around for quite a while, and you
find mention of it in the works of Plenty the

Elder from the Natural History, where of course we're always
turning to Plenty to see what he had to say.
And this is what he had to say in the
Natural History. This is the Bostic translation quote. The beavers
of Yuxin, when they are closely pressed by danger, themselves
cut off the same part as they know that it
is for this they are pursued. This substance is called

castorian by the physicians. In addition to this, the bite
of this animal is terrible. With its teeth, it can
cut down trees on the banks of rivers just as
though with a knife. If they seize a man by
any part of his body, they will never loose their
hold until his bones are broken and crackle under their teeth.

The tail is like that of a fish. In other
parts of the body, they resemble the otter. They are
both of them aquatic animals, and both have hair softer
than down.

Speaker 3 (26:12):
I love the description of the ferociousness here is sort
of describing like the snapping turtle reputation. You know, it
won't let go into lightning strikes. If you make a
beaver mad, it's gonna bite until your bones are broken,
and basically it's crunching on them like cereal.

Speaker 1 (26:30):
Yeah, and this is an idea that I think for
many of us might seem comical because we don't think
of the beaver as being aggressive. And I you know,
as we discussed in the last episode, beavers, certainly when
they're dealing with other beavers, they have an number of
safeguards in place to prevent like actual combat from occurring
unless necessary. So you might be wondering, well, is there

anything too, Is this just Plenty getting it wrong, or
are beaver's truly this ferocious? Well, beaver attacks on humans
are rare, but they are not unknown. Rabis can of
course play a role, but it's not always a factor
in these rare instances. We might laugh at Plenty's description,
but beavers are of course wild animals. They should be respected,

and they can be put into situations where they then
violently defend themselves. There has been at least one account
of a fatal attack on a human in the last century,
and I believe in that case it was a situation
where they were bit by the beaver and then bled
to death. Now, there is a wonderful CBC Radio interview

out there if you haven't heard it, from the early
nineties and then I'm not sure the date is known,
but it was rebroadcasting I think ninety seven, and that's
the version that is archived with CBC Radio. It's apparently
one of the most requested recordings from the CBC Radio archive.
If you look for it, you can find it out there.

It is action packed, it is a little bit funny,
but it's also not for the weak of heart.

Speaker 3 (28:01):
This interview is riveting. A man describes I think he's
trying to drive across a bridge in his truck when
during a heavy downpour, or maybe right after one, and
the bridge is sort of flooded. There's some water standing
between the concrete barriers on the sides of the bridge,
and it appears that a beaver has taken up residence

on the bridge. It's sort of swimming back and forth
in the water. The man gets out of his truck
because he is afraid he has accidentally hit the beaver
with his truck, and when he gets out, the beaver
angrily latches onto his leg and proceeds to attack him
multiple times. He sustains. It seems not life threatening necessarily,
but pretty serious sounding injuries, Like the beaver bites and

it bites hard.

Speaker 1 (28:46):
Yeah, like bites him like eleven times, and he's just
fighting it off, trying to get back in his truck
and drive off. I think he has to hit it
with a propane tank at some point. And yeah, it's
a violent account, though I have to stress that the
the man telling the tale, he has a lot of
sympathy for the beaver, and at the end of it,
he's like, you know, it's my fault. I'm the one

who I thought I hit it, and I should never
have gotten out of the car. It was just it
was just out of the truck. It was just defending itself.
But it really drives home that, yes, if the beaver
is cornered, the beaver can be ferocious. Those teeth can
dig into you, and you can easily see how in
another situation, if the beaver had got him in just
a few different places, he could have easily bled to

death before he was able to drive himself to the hospital.
I also like how the individual in this story he's
quick to add it's like, I've been bit by just
about every animal out there, but I'd never been bit
or i'd been attacked by it. Just about every animal
out there been attacked by a wolverine one imagines a moose,
but never a beaver.

Speaker 3 (29:48):
Yeah. But I am, like you said, impressed by he
holds no malice for the beaver even after the attack.
I think he just keeps saying he was on defense.

Speaker 1 (29:59):
Yeah, So definitely sweep that out of you if you're interested.
But back to the plenty document here, One of the
notes on this text points out that Plenty derived this
description from the physician Sextius, and the text goes hun
to remark on the vulgar error here and mentions the
work of the French naturalist Cuvier. Quote. Cuvier remarks that

when the gland becomes distended with this secretion, the animal
may probably get rid of it by rubbing the part
against a stone or tree, and in this way leave
the cast door for the hunters, thus giving rise to
the vulgar error. Now this is interesting because going back
to what we just discussed, it discussed disgusted. Sorry, it's

easy to get the too confused here. What we're talking
about here, what they're rubbing would be the anal gland secretions,
not the cast door. But still, you can imagine this
situation where you'd have something distended from the lower end
of the beaver, something and that may look from a
pair of glands that may look like testicles. Here's this
beaver going up or rubbing itself against a stone or

a piece of a tree branch or something, and then
oh lo and behold, whatever was protruding is gone. This
could be the thing that quote gives rise to the
vulgar era.

Speaker 3 (31:19):
Yep, that does make sense, and it connects again to
the idea of the scent markings being territorial boundaries in nature,
you know, trying to ward off encroachments by other beavers
often so it makes a lot of sense that, say,
if a hunter is coming into a beaver's family group territory,
the hunter might see it marking.

Speaker 1 (31:38):
Now Plenty also mentions the beaver again in the natural
history when discussing the sea cow, which he says has
a similar level of intelligence and a similar alleged defense capability.

Speaker 2 (31:49):

Speaker 1 (31:49):
And this is talking about the sea cow. It vomits
forth its gall which is useful for many purposes in medicine.
Also the rennet, which serves as a remedy in epilepsy,
for it is well aware that it is hunted. For
these substances, Theophrastus informs us that lizards also cast their
skins like the serpent, and instantly devour them, thus depriving

us of a powerful remedy for epilepsy. He says two
that the bite of the lizard is fatal in Greece
but harmless in Italy. Okay, Now there is some merit
to what plenty is saying here generally because certain creatures
are thought to leave behind parts of their body or

vomit something as a distract for predators. We also know
very well that not just humans but animal predators sometimes
target specific organs of their prey. But what he's reporting
about the beaver here specifically is not true. But I
also find this interesting a tangent the idea that the
lizard eats its skin after it sheds it, despite us

to be like, Nope, you're not getting in your hands
on my sweet skin, when I mean, in reality, we
know that many lizards, including my son's gecko, consumes its
own sheddings because you're not gonna waste that good stuff.

Speaker 3 (33:10):
Of course not. Yeah, nature is full of disgusting efficiencies.
But to add a little bit to what you said
a minute ago, it is absolutely true that, yeah, there
are many animals that will self amputate when threatened to
buy a predator or under various stressful situations. This is
a strategy known as autotomy. A a u t o

t o m y comes from the Greek for self
cutting or self severing. And yeah, this is you can
often see it like in lizards, where yes, if a predator, say,
grabs hold of their tail. The lizard will just release
the tail from their body the predator can have it,
which has a double effect that's helpful for the lizard's survival.

For one thing, if it is grabbed by the tail
and then releases the tail, it has now escaped the
grasp of the predator. But the other thing is but
give being the predator a sort of consolation prize. It's
almost like compromising with them. It's like, well, you can
have this much, but you can't have my whole life.

Speaker 1 (34:09):
It's also worth noting that I think, I mean, all
the examples of this that come to mind are essentially
ejections releases. They do not involve like active severing of
a creature's own body with its teeth or its claws
or that sort of thing.

Speaker 3 (34:25):
Well, yeah, that's a good question. All of the ones
I can think of, having read of read about before, yeah,
just seem to be reject severings, often of like a
tail or a leg or something, or a claw. But
that is a good question. There are there cases where
the animal has to work on its own autonomy, where

it essentially must do the severing itself with its teeth,
or claws or other something something like that.

Speaker 1 (34:54):
Yeah, so if the beaver were to sever its own testicles,
it would be really an alarm behavioral development. I can't
imagine a situation where this where a creature would develop,
like evolved to have this as an as an actual
feature of like dropping their testicles, like ejecting them, because

you know, even examples like certain scorpions that eject part
of their own tail and in doing so eject their
anus and then can no longer poop, as we've discussed,
and then just kind of swell up with poop for
the rest of their lives. If memory serves, they can
still reproduce. They're not giving up reproduction, that vital act
of any species in order to protect itself.

Speaker 3 (35:36):
I did think of a possible counter example. I wish
I had read up on this deeply before we started recording,
but I believe there are cases where crabs will practice
autonomy and that will involve the like cutting or pulling
of the autonomized claw with the other claw, So that
is like active like the alleged beaver testicle biting it.

Speaker 1 (36:00):
To crabs to do it that way.

Speaker 3 (36:02):
Yeah, maybe we'll have to come back to that. In
listener mail or.

Speaker 2 (36:05):
Something all right.

Speaker 1 (36:15):
Now, coming back to custorium, the origins of human uses
for this substance are of course lost to time. They
emerge from somewhere in the vast period of time during
which our ancestors determined how best to process and use
an animal's body for resources that range from like the
really practical like meat and materials, to things that are
more cultural like decorations and adornments. And also that often

mercy area of medicinal and magical properties in a given substance.
But still we have some early sources to consider. Now,
apparently the ancient archaeological evidence of caustorium usage by humans
takes us back a good six thousand years. I was
looking at a paper titled Ancient Throwing Dart reveals first
archaeological evidence of Custorium, pushed in the Journal of Archaeological

Science Reports. This was in June of twenty twenty one
by Hellwig at All and basically this throwing dart in
particular was found in the Yukon territory, and it featured
a red orange residue that, upon analysis contained the various
organic ingredients and materials that matched up with beaver castorium.

The authors point out that the substance was seemingly used
to toughen wood by ancient hunters, though baiting and medicinal
uses among later First Nations people were also recorded. The
Taltan people in particular were said to use it on
the heated wood of their bows and kept some on
their person in a small container of like wood or

horn or bone. So it sounds like it was something
that was probably used to like to maintain your weapons,
to maintain your hunting implements.

Speaker 3 (37:58):
That's a kind of oily treatment for the wood.

Speaker 1 (38:01):
Yeah, yeah, which you know this to a certain extent,
I guess kind of reminds one of how the beavers
use it to help use that special claw comb of
theirs to comb it into their fur, in addition to
using it to mark their scent.

Speaker 3 (38:16):
But in the fur, it's I believe it's supposed to
have some waterproofing purposes.

Speaker 1 (38:20):
Yeah, yeah, Now, Sarah Lohman, in a twenty seventeen article
for Mental Floss, points it's a nice overview that points
to a number of different additional alleged uses for a castorium.
For instance, I believe in Roman times it was thought
that you could use like a smoke inhalation based version

of it for as an abortive medicine. Twelfth century mystic
Hildegarde von Bingen wrote that it could be powdered and
put into a wine to reduce fever, and then in
colonial America it was used for all sorts of stuff.
It was used as both the means of staving off
sweep you know, sort of like your trucker speed, I guess,
but it was also used to encourage sleep, you know,

having a little insomnia. Well her own castorium. It was
used as a kind of brain booster. You know, you're
feeling like you need to up your game. Well, you
can't just grab some some some pills, some brain booster
pills at the grocery store. You need to go get
yourself some castorium from the local apothecary.

Speaker 3 (39:21):
They must have gotten really smart.

Speaker 2 (39:23):

Speaker 1 (39:23):
Yeah. It was used to treat colic, to treat gout,
and to treat toothaches and earaches.

Speaker 3 (39:30):
Now I got interested in the idea of the use
of castorium allegedly to treat pain because of something I read. Unfortunately,
I was not able to find a very clear answer
on this, but what I read was that I was
looking at a book called Aspirin and the Salacillates by KD. Rainsford,

published in twenty thirteen. Quote salacillates have also been identified
in beaver castor i e. Of from where it is
secreted instead of the via the usual urinary route. The
salicylates are probably metabolic transformation products from vegetable sources in
the diet of the beaver. So that kind of interested

me because salicylates are related to the active ingredient in aspirin.
Aspirin is, of course, it's a nonsteroidal anti inflammatory drug
often used to reduce fever and treat pain inflammation, and
this active ingredient in aspirin, acetyl salicilic acid, is derived

from a precursor found in the bark of the willow tree,
which of course is something that beavers tend to chew
and eat a lot of. So this chemical relationship with
the active ingredient in a common nonsteroidal anti inflammatory and
pain reliever made me wonder if there could be some

kind of of connection there, like maybe this downstream animal
product that's derived from this original plant molecule. I wondered
if that could be playing a role in castorium actually
having an anti inflammatory effect or treating pain. But I
could not find anything solid to back up that connection,

So I don't know if there's actually anything to that,
but my curiosity is raised here.

Speaker 1 (41:25):
M Yeah, that's interesting. Now, outside of alleged medicinal properties,
it also has a long history of being used as
a like a just for its scent and as a
flavor enhancer. Loman notes, as others have noted in these
other sources we've looked at that castorium, once processed, you know,

smoked or derived into a tincture, it can be used
to enhance flavors, particularly to enhance flavors of raspberry and
strawberry to replicate a kind of vanilla flavor. And it's
also been used to give perfumes a sort of leathery odor.
And I guess all this shouldn't be too surprising, again
realizing that the compounds in castorium are ultimately derived from

leaves and tree bark, so it shouldn't be completely shocking. Now.
It's still technically an FDA approved natural flavoring in the
United States, but it's rarely used and was far more
commonly used as a flavor enhancer in the early twentieth century.
Now you've probably if you've looked around at anything about this,

you may have come across this. There is apparently a
Swedish spirit called Baverhook that uses castorium, translated as beaver shout.
Some adventurous imbibers have sought it out. You'll find a
number of essentially I guess spirit and alcohol bloggers out
there talking about their experiences with it or doing videos,

some of these with kind of crude titles. But I
found a really nice one on a blog from an
individual named Dolly Jorgensen at Dolly dot jorgensenweb dot net,
who has like a very nice, historically driven post on
the subject that is again far classier than what I
was seeing in other places online. I just want to

read a quick quote from Dolly Jorgenson about trying out
beaver shout. Quote. The first flavor was similar to oak
cured whiskey, but then the musk comes out. It's a
hard to describe taste, but I imagine that it's what traditional
male musky cologne would taste like. It was not particularly strong, however,

so it seemed pleasant enough to consume. Most of the shot.
An hour later, however, I had a different opinion as
the castorium sense started to seep out through my skin.
Literally my pores started to extrude the musky smell.

Speaker 3 (43:54):
Okay, I mean that's a commercial basically.

Speaker 1 (43:58):
So I thought that was tell because the way the
author describes it here it is it's probably or at
least in this case, and I guess it depends on
who's making the liquor and so forth, But it sounds
like it's more tolerable than you might imagine, but there
being this kind of like after effect to consuming it.

If any adventurous sorts out there listening to this episode
have experience with beaver shout, do write in. We would
love to hear from you. We'd love to hear your
impression of this.

Speaker 3 (44:28):
You know, this reminds me of the time we talked
about the liquor that had a human toe in it,
and then we heard from multiple listeners who said they
drank it.

Speaker 1 (44:36):
Yeah. Yeah. There was another blog post that I was
looking at where the individual was like, Hey, it's kind
of a hobby of mine to find various alcohols that
have something organic in them, something some like part and
then try it out and you see this in different cultures,
Like the idea is like some sort of alcohol and
it has like I don't know, a snake in it,
a scorpion in it, that sort of thing. But in

this case, the the castor glands of a beaver are
used to create a unique spirit. I also looked around.
I was like, maybe somebody's making a cocktail with this.
Maybe there's a beaver shout cocktail out there. I could
not find one. So if mixologists out there are figuring
out a way to sort of tame the flavor of

beaver shout and like sort of manipulate it into a
more refined concoction, I have not found evidence of it
of it. I went to im Buy magazine and looked
around for castorium and that nothing was coming up. And
that's the one place I would expect, like some professional
mixologists out there has has whipped this up, you know,

just on just as a challenge. But I saw no
evidence of it. Maybe in Sweden, maybe maybe it's like
a special thing. You need to like look to Swedish
high end bars to find this.

Speaker 3 (45:49):
Maybe maybe you got to ask beer get where to
find it.

Speaker 1 (45:52):
Yeah, all right, well I believe we're going to close
out our two parter on the beaver here, but this
was a fun one. This is one that initially I
was thinking we would discuss these some of these images
of the beaver in an episode that looked at other
inaccurate depictions of animals from various bestiaries. And then it
quickly became obvious that this was an entire episode, and

then that it was actually a part one and a
part two. I have so much more respect and admiration
for the weird and wonderful beaver.

Speaker 3 (46:24):
Now, how can you not? I mean, if you don't,
they'll shake a stick at you.

Speaker 1 (46:28):
Yeah. Yeah, all right, we're going to go and close
it out here, but we'd love to hear from everyone
out there if you have thoughts experiences concerning the beaver
right in. If you want to check out other episodes
we've done in the past, We've covered a lot of
curious animals over the years, kind of composing our own
bestiary in many respects on the Stuff to Blow Your

Mind podcast. You can find core episodes of that on
Tuesdays and Thursdays in the Stuff to Blow Your Mind
podcast feed. On Mondays, we do list you mail on
Wednesday's we do a short form artifactor of Months Your Fact,
and on Fridays we set aside most series concerns to
just talk about a weird movie on Weird House Cinema.

Speaker 3 (47:06):
Huge thanks to our audio producer JJ Posway. If you
would like to get in touch with us with feedback
on this episode or any other, to suggest a topic
for the future, or just to say hello, you can
email us at contact at stuff to Blow your Mind
dot com.

Speaker 4 (47:28):
Stuff to Blow Your Mind is production of iHeartRadio. For
more podcasts from my heart Radio, visit the iHeartRadio app,
Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

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