That’s one HUGE rodent!

We had two international researchers make a special trip to Columbus this week just to examine specimens in the natural history collections! OK, they’re from Canada, but that’s still international right!? Anyway, we were pleased to welcome Tessa Plint and Dr. Fred Longstaffe of the Laboratory for Stable Isotope Science at the University of Western Ontario. They are part of a major research project that involves researchers at museums and universities from the American Museum of Natural History in New York to the Yukon Paleontology Program.

Castoroides, by Charles Knight.

The focus of this research is the Giant Beaver, Castoroides, that lived during the Pleistocene. It is a member of the beaver family but was much larger then the modern beaver. In fact, it was the size of a black bear! The most common Giant Beaver species was Castoroides ohioensis and, like the name suggests, it was first found right here in Ohio in 1837. Though it ranged across North America, fossil finds of the Giant Beaver are concentrated in states near the Great Lakes. This makes our specimens particularly important to this research project.

Sampling a Giant Beaver jaw with a Dremel tool.

We’re all familiar with today’s beaver, and how they cut down trees with their large, sharp curved incisors. The Giant Beaver had massive incisors, however there is no evidence so far that they cut down trees or made lodges. So what did they use these huge teeth for!? Even though Castoroides is one of the most widely distributed fossil genera in North America during the Pleistocene, little is known about their behavior or ecology. By sampling small amounts of bone from fossil specimens, the researchers will analyze the bone for stable isotopes of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. This will determine the food habits of the Giant Beaver and help determine this species’ place in the paleoenvironment. Tessa removed a small fragment of bone from two specimens using a Dremel tool (see photos). She also borrowed several small pieces of broken teeth to obtain samples the enamel and dentine. This involves the use of a MicroMill drill, thus the tooth samples had to be taken back to the lab at the University of Western Ontario for sampling. Museums are very cautious about any research proposal that requires destructive sampling of specimens. The researchers had to go through a detailed application process, approval by the Curator, and then final approval by our Collections Management Team. The scope of this project, as well as the credentials and experience of the researchers, met all of our criteria to allow for destructive sampling. We’re excited to learn the results of this innovative research and we’ll keep you updated in this blog!

So where can you go to see Giant Beaver fossils? Well, there are several skulls on exhibit right now in the Natural History Mall of the Ohio Historical Center! And a Giant Beaver skull will be featured in our upcoming exhibit entitled “Going, Going, GONE? Endangered and Extinct Species”, which will open on July 2nd. Or if you want to see a full-sized, scientifically accurate artist reconstruction of this species, visit the Ice Age Exhibit at Cincinnati Museum of Natural History in the Cincinnati Museum Center.

 A Giant Beaver model being removed from latex molds, Cincinnati Museum Center.
Posted June 2, 2014

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