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The strangest members of the animal kingdom

Beavering away on a dam. Allison Shelley/Getty

A million years ago, “beavers the size of bears roamed North America”, says Leila Philip in LitHub. The “deep weirdness” of their modern descendants poses an evolutionary puzzle. Swimming, they seem more like seals than big rodents, but then their “dexterous forepaws” look startlingly human with “five nimble fingers and naked palms”. They groom their lustrous fur with “catlike fastidiousness”, standing on “gooselike hind feet”, each as wide as the beaver’s head. Then there’s the “reptilian tail”, which looks like it’s been “run over by a tractor tire, the treads leaving a pattern of indentations that resemble scales”.

Part bear, part bird, part monkey, part lizard, humanoid hands, an aquatic tail. “Is it any surprise that beavers have fired the human imagination in every continent that they are found?” Some of mankind’s oldest animal effigies are of beavers; Russia’s Shigir Idol – “the earliest wooden carving in the world” – was sculpted using a beaver’s lower jawbone. Tribes across North America hunted but also revered the creature, sometimes gouging out the eyes of trapped beavers to prevent them witnessing their own death. In Europe, the Roman Catholic Church decreed they could be “eaten like fish as penance” on holy days. Throughout the ancient Middle East, castoreum, the sweet-smelling excretion from beaver glands, was used for medicinal purposes. In Persia, where beavers were considered sacred, the animals were protected by a system of fines: harming one could cost you 60,000 gold darics, “although you could get out of it by killing one thousand snakes”.