Beaver are the largest rodents in Indiana, the largest rodents in the United States, and the
second largest rodent in the world (South American capybara are the largest). But as large as
they are now, they were even bigger in the past—or at least their relatives were. Around the
end of the Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago, what is now Indiana and Illinois was home to the
greatest concentration of giant beaver in North America. These cousins of the modern beaver
were as big as black bears, up to 8 feet long and over 200 pounds! Unlike current beaver, their
teeth were not chisel-shaped, so they would not have cut down trees and probably didn’t make
dams or lodges. They would have lived in the water, though, and eaten various types of aquatic vegetation much like muskrats do today.
The two species of modern beaver, our local North American beaver and the Eurasian
beaver, are not descended from their giant cousins. Modern beaver were already around when
the giants were alive, sometimes living in the same area, according to fossil evidence. But as
the glaciers of the Ice Age retreated and the climate warmed up, the giant beaver went extinct
and their smaller tree-chewing cousins flourished.
Beaver were common throughout Indiana and much of the United States and Canada when
the two countries were being settled. Many historians believe beaver were more responsible
for the exploration and development of our country than any other animal, because of the
great value of and desire for beaver fur. The first white men to explore many portions of North
America were trappers searching for beaver. The demand was so great that the population of
beaver in many areas was greatly reduced, or even wiped out. Such was the case in Indiana.
Beaver were completely trapped out of our state by the late 1880s or early 1890s. When all
of a certain type of animal is gone from a defined area (like a state), it is said to have been
extirpated. It is likely Gene Stratton-Porter never saw any beaver in the Limberlost during the
time she lived in Geneva, from 1888 to 1913.
Beaver were re-introduced into Indiana in 1935 and have been successfully re-established
throughout much of the state. They have returned to the Limberlost area. Beaver don’t always
build dams and lodges. They also commonly dig burrows into the banks of rivers and streams.
These “bank beavers” are not nearly as noticeable as the dam building ones. Often people
don’t realize they are around. If you hike along the Wabash River at the Rainbow Bend Park or
Limberlost County Park you probably won’t see a beaver, but if you look along the river’s edge
you might find beaver-gnawed branches. Or better yet, you might hear the slap of a beaver’s
tail as it dives underwater when it realizes you are nearby—a sound Mrs. Porter may never
have experienced in her wanderings through the Limberlost.