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The Ecology of the Giant Beaver (unpublished AD&D 2E Ecology article)


It's been awhile since I posted one of my unpublished "Ecology" articles. I think I had posted this one once before, but it was lost in the board crash we had some time back now. In any case, this is a standalone "Ecology" article that was submitted, and rejected, back in the AD&D Second Edition days.

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Some might think me an egocentric old man, sitting alone in my forest glade, writing my memoirs, but this is not so. Were this to be a complete history of my life, such thoughts might have some merit, but I write not to be remembered, but to pass on information that I have gleaned in the course of a long life spent along the path of the druid. Indeed, I have seen many things unseen by most men, and now, in my waning years, I feel it my duty to pass on my knowledge and experiences to those who would follow.

I will begin, I think, by telling of my meeting with the People of the Lodge. Most that know of them at all know them by the name "giant beavers."

It was early in my years as a druid, having only recently felt the calling of the green. I was something of a journeyman then, exploring the world and reveling in all that nature had to offer. At the time of my encounter, I was exploring a vast forest, having entered it only a day or two before, and seeking out medicinal herbs for my pouch. The sun was close to setting, and I began to search for a place to make my camp for the night, when I heard the unmistakable sound of a tree falling in the near distance. Heading in the direction of the sound, I emerged from the growth of the forest to find myself within a stone's throw of a shimmering lake.

I still remember the scene I saw then as if it happened yesterday. The felled tree had fallen towards the lake, missing its still waters by five feet or less. The trunk was pointed, like a stake, as was the top of the stump that remained, thrusting up out of the ground at a height of no more than three feet. Bent over the tree was an animal almost as large as myself, not counting its flattened oval tail, which stuck out behind it another several feet.

I think the creature noticed me about the same time that I noticed it, for my mind had just registered it as a giant beaver when the creature darted for the water at a speed I would not have thought possible for a creature of its size. As it hit the water, it slapped down with its paddle-like tail, creating a loud crack that broke the stillness of the evening.[1]

The animal swam well, heading for what appeared to be an island in the middle of the lake. As I watched it, I saw other shapes in the water, perhaps a dozen or more, all converging on the island. Rather than crawl up on the island, though, they submerged upon nearing it, and I saw no more of them that night. I had seen the lodges of normal beavers, and so it was just the sheer size of the "island" that prevented me from making the connection immediately, but it made sense that a giant beaver colony would live in a similarly giant lodge.

And giant it was. The thing must have risen up out of the lake a good ten feet or more. It was hemispherical in shape, with a diameter at the water level of at least thirty feet. There was no way in that I could see, but if giant beavers built along the same lines as their smaller-sized cousins, I knew that the entrance to their dwelling would be underwater.

By this time the sun was going down, and I could no longer observe the lodge or its shy denizens. Still, intrigued, I threw down my bedroll by the side of the felled tree and vowed to learn more in the morning.

1. The tail slap of a giant beaver is a well-known signal of danger, and on a quiet night, the sound can be heard for well over a mile. All giant beavers in earshot respond immediately by heading towards their lodge at full speed.
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I awoke at sunrise, in time to observe my aquatic neighbors' first stirrings of the day.[2] At first, a single head popped up from the surface of the water near the lodge, and looked around in all directions. Slowly, he swam in a circle around his dwelling, scanning for danger from the forest around him. He stared at me for nearly a minute, and I sat there, motionless, staring back, radiating calmness and my good intentions. Apparently, he accepted that I wasn't a threat, for he ducked back under the surface of the water, and soon thereafter returned with a good score of others, who spread out and went off in different directions.

I could see that at various places along the edge of the lake there were pointed stumps like the one I had seen the night before, signs of the beavers' woodcutting.[3] In the morning light I could see the process clearly: one of the animals would approach his selected tree, and with his head turned parallel to the ground, take a bite out of the bark with his powerful front teeth. Then he would move his head a little and take another bite, making an adjacent cut into the tree. Over time, the tree would have an hourglass shape carved into it, and at the narrowest point, the giant beaver would concentrate his efforts until with a crack, the tree would fall over to the ground.

More often than not, the beavers would go in groups of twos or threes, with one of them standing guard for danger while the others worked. I noticed that they swapped off sentry duty often, but also that once a particular beaver started on a tree, he didn't stop until he had personally finished the job.

Once a tree was down, the branches would be stripped. Many of the smaller beavers took the branches back to the lodge, where they were used for building material or food. To the larger ones would fall the task of lugging the tree trunks back to the water. Those that were too heavy were cut into smaller, more manageable portions, or small canals were dug from the lake to the fallen tree, so that it could be floated back to the lodge.

While I watched the beavers work, I noticed one in particular kept glancing in my direction. Fearing to approach too close, I had spent the morning at my campsite near the fallen tree, watching them from a distance. At last, I caught on to why the one kept looking at me, and I gathered my belongings and stepped away, going twenty yards or so down the shore. Sure enough, the beaver approached the fallen tree and got to work finishing the job he had started the night before, stripping the branches from it. I had to laugh to myself at his almost human attitude; here he had gone to all the trouble of cutting down the tree, and I had been keeping him from it by my continued presence in its proximity. I imagined I could almost read an expression of exasperation on his furry face.

I was overcome by a sudden urge to talk to this creature. I had been watching him and his family now for some time, and yet for all of their diligent work, all of their actions so far had mirrored those of normal beavers, whom I knew to have merely an animal intelligence. These creatures seemed at first to be merely larger versions of the common beaver, but the scowl I received from my furry friend told me otherwise; I sensed a greater intelligence behind such a human reaction. And so I retreated into the forest, and began to meditate.

When I returned, I had the magical means to fulfill my desire. I approached the giant beaver slowly, carefully, lest I frighten it away. Belatedly, I wondered if an animal friendship spell might not have been in order, but no, I wanted to do this part myself. I got as close as I dared, and he stopped work, peering at me quizzically as I cast my speak with animals spell.

"Hello," I said. "I mean you no harm."

"You can talk," the creature responded.

"It is magic. I can talk with you like this for a short time only. I did not mean to frighten you and the others. Please forgive me for my intrusion."

"I didn't know you could talk. I thought only the People could talk."

"The People? Is that what you call yourselves?"

"The People of the Lodge."

"That's interesting. In my language, we call ourselves 'people.' Is there a word for me in your language?"

"You are a hunter. I saw a hunter once. He chased Berrypicker and tried to kill her with his little spears. But we hid in the lodge and he went away."

"You don't seem afraid of me."

"You don't have any little spears." I assume that he meant arrows, and in that he was correct. My only weapon was a staff, which I used mostly as a walking stick.

"What is your name?" I asked.

"I am Dives Deep."

"I am pleased to meet you, Dives Deep. My name is Delbert."

"That's a funny name. It doesn't mean anything."

I laughed. "I suppose it doesn't," I agreed. And then, I sensed that time was rapidly running out on my spell. "Thank you for talking with me, Dives Deep. I will visit with you again, if that is all right."

"Okay." And with that, he bent back down to his tree and began pulling off branches again. Another giant beaver approached him from the water and started chattering, but my spell had expired, and I no longer could understand them. I turned and reentered the forest, leaving the People of the Lodge to their work.

2. In quiet areas, giant beavers will do much of their activity in the daylight hours, specifically in the early morning and late afternoon - they like to sleep during the hottest part of the day. If disturbed by other races or potential enemies, giant beavers will hide out in their lodge during the day and work at night.

3. An adventuring party can't ask for a better place to fight a vampire than in an area where giant beavers have been at work felling trees, as the place will be filled with pointed tree stumps of all sizes - a veritable garden of "wooden stakes."
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I spent the next week or so in the general vicinity, and visited the People often. Each time, Dives Deep would approach me, and we would talk for a short while. I think he enjoyed the experience of being able to talk with someone not of his race. The others did not approach me, but they came to accept me as a non-threat, and would go about their business without giving me a second thought.

During the course of my visits, I was able to observe the giant beavers in some detail. I was amazed by their forepaws, which, like many rodents, are equipped with a thumb-like digit allowing for quite precise manipulation. Their hind feet are webbed, which aid them in swimming. I also observed that they use their tail like a rudder as they swim, and as a counterbalance when they drag floating timber through the water.

Nature certainly made these wonderful creatures well-adapted to swimming. Their fur is completely waterproof, which I learned from Dives Deep is a result of their rubbing an oil that they secrete into it.[4] They are able to stay underwater for a great deal of time; I once counted out a full twelve minutes that my friend stayed submerged. He was certainly well-named indeed![5]

At last, I took my leave of the People of the Lodge. I had seen them at their work, and had enjoyed the time I had spent with them, but it was a wide world, and it had much else to show me. With a farewell wave, I said goodbye to my aquatic friends, and moved on.

4. Giant beavers have only one body orifice, the cloaca. The cloaca serves as the genital tract, is used for the excretion of both solid and liquid waste materials, and is the location of two different sets of glands. Two small glands in the rear produce the waterproofing oil, while in front of these are the castors, or scent glands. The castors are used for communication: they are rubbed on the giant beaver lodge and dam as a mark of territoriality, and a female in heat will send out pheremones through her castor oils, which are released in the water in order to let eligible males downstream know of her availability.

5. Giant beavers have many adaptations assisting them in an underwater existence. They have nictitating membranes, a sort of transparent eyelid, which cover their eyes when they dive. These protect the eyes from any irritating substance they might encounter while underwater. Their ears and nostrils can be closed tightly, preventing water from entering when they submerge. They can use their tails to help propel them along, by undulating it up and down as they kick with their webbed hind feet. A giant beaver can swim underwater for about 3-5 minutes at a stretch without effort, and by dropping its heartbeat by half, can stay under for up to 15 minutes, during which time it can swim for almost a full mile.
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That was not the last I ever saw of them, however. Many years later, when I had risen up in the ranks of the druids, I had occasion to travel through the same forest once again, and I decided to drop in on the People of the Lodge. My memory served me well, for I found the place with little effort, but it was deserted. The shore all along the lake was filled with the typical pointed stumps of trees I had come to associate with giant beaver territory, but growing among them were the newborn stalks of young saplings.[6]

By this time, I had mastered the druidic ability to change shapes, so I became a hawk and took to the skies. With my incredible hawk- vision, I soon spotted a nearby lodge, and headed there, landing on the shore and resuming my human form. It was midday, and there were no giant beavers to be seen, but I assumed they were probably napping inside, and, not wanting to disturb them, I contented myself by spending the time waiting for them in beaver form.

I had worn the form of the beaver several times before, and each time I was amazed by the change in the senses. I, a human, am so used to being a predominantly vision-oriented creature that it is always a wonder to experience the senses of other animals first-hand. As a beaver, I found the sense of smell to be predominant. Such a world of scents! Over there, a fragrant patch of berries ripening in the sun. And there, the unmistakable scent of an otter, frolicking somewhere upstream. I found I could hear the sounds he made as he played, even though my limited vision (by human terms) could not spot him.

Underwater, it was a different world. I could see fine, and my beaver-eyes were particularly good at detecting motion. I swam upstream, past the lodge (overcoming the urge to enter it, for I could see perfectly well the various underwater entrances and exits), and found the playful otter, and together we whiled away the better part of an hour, until I thought it time to return to the shore and resume my human form once again.

Like before, those many years ago, I saw the giant beaver emerging-from-the-lodge ritual, with the oldest male circling the dwelling, looking for danger, before allowing the rest of the colony to emerge. To my surprise, this time it was none other than Dives Deep. He saw me, and headed in my direction. I took the time to cast a spell, allowing us to talk.

"Hello, Dives Deep. It's been a long time."

"Delbert! I thought that smelled like you!" He came up, out of the water, and I got my first good look at his true size. He had grown. Nose to tail, he must have been no shorter than a good seven feet.[7]

"You grew fur on your face!"

I ran my hand along my chin, feeling the beard that I had allowed to grow. Rather than go into the concept of beards, I just nodded.

"So how are things going, Dives Deep? I see you're leading your own colony now."

"Yes. I am mated to Berrypicker. We have three kits."

"Well, congratulations! How is everyone doing?" I asked the question automatically, making small talk. I was not prepared for the answer, or for the matter-of-fact way that my friend responded.

"My mate will die soon."

I was dumbfounded. I managed to stumble out a question or two. "Die? How? Is there anything I can do?"

It took some convincing, but I think I managed to get across the idea that my magic might be able to aid my friend's mate.[8] In the end, it might have been nothing more than the fact that I was a friend that finally persuaded Dives Deep to allow me to see his ailing mate, in the People's inner sanctum, the lodge interior.

6. Unlike normal beavers, giant beavers are conservationiss, going out of their way to ensure that for each tree removed from a forest, another new one is planted. However, once all of the available trees in a lodge's vicinity are used up, the colony has no choice but to move on. A colony won't move any further than it has to, usually a matter of a mile or two.

7. The giant beaver, like its smaller cousin, does not stop growing with age. Thus, although 6 feet is the normal size of an adult giant beaver, larger specimens are possible if they exceed their normal lifespan (25 years or so).

8. Giant beavers are a practical folk, who value hard work and determination, and have little experience with magic. They do not practice magic themselves and have no tribal shamans, or even a mindset that would allow them to consider magic as a practical tool in their everyday lives. Indeed, they tend to see magic as they do weapons: as something used by other races, but of no value to themselves, who have lived fine for years without it.
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Dives Deep led the way, to warn his colony that a human would be entering the lodge, but that it was by his consent. I followed, my human limbs propelling me through the water much slower than his webbed feet. When I reached the lodge he was waiting for me, then dove under. Taking a deep breath, I followed.

The lodge entrance we used was the largest, and I assumed it to be the main one, the "front door," if you will. It was a circular hole in the side of the construction, about eight feet in diameter, and leading to an interior tunnel that sloped upwards. Following the tunnel, I soon found myself in an air-filled chamber above the surface of the water. I pulled myself up onto the floor of the chamber, and looked around.

There wasn't much light, merely dim sunlight filtering in from the ventilation shaft on the chamber's ceiling. But it was enough to make out the giant form of Dives Deep, and another form of the same approximate size, laying on her side along one wall.[9] From what I could see of her, she was much thinner than Dives Deep, looking almost emaciated.

As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I began to make out more details. The female was breathing heavily, as if struggling with each breath. Her muzzle was wet with drool, and something seemed wrong with her mouth. It was twisted, misshapen in some way, but I couldn't quite see the problem without more light. After warning Dives Deep of my intention, I cast a faerie fire spell on his mate.

In the glow of the spell, I saw the problem. Giant beavers, like other rodents, are constantly wearing down their teeth with their chewing and gnawing. To balance this, nature has provided rodents with teeth that grow throughout their lives, so as they are worn down, they grow back. In Berrypicker's case, her incisors didn't match up quite right, and so hadn't worn down correctly. Instead, one pair overlapped the other, and had growth to such a length that they prevented her from opening and closing her mouth.[10]

"It's going to be okay, Dives Deep. I think I can help her. I will need to sit here with her and meditate for awhile. You may stay here and sit quietly with us if you wish."

"Yes." To his credit, I don't think he moved a muscle during the next hour, not even when the faerie fire spell expired and cast us back into near-darkness. I know for a fact that he knew nothing of the workings of magic, but perhaps he sensed, in some animal way, my need for total concentration if I were to prepare the heal spell correctly.

At long last, I was ready. I placed my hands upon Berrypicker's face, one on each side, fingers outspread, with my thumbs touching her overlapping incisors. And then, I said the words that released the spell's energy, and I felt the power of the spell coursing through my body, and into the ailing being in my hands.

It worked. Within minutes, Berrypicker was sitting upright, nibbling on various bits of twigs that her mate had brought her. The spell had healed her teeth completely, but done nothing for all of the weight she had lost. Still, watching Dives Deep bringing her pile after pile of succulent timber, I felt that they'd take care of that in no time at all.

As I made my way to go, Dives Deep took me aside. He thanked me, and insisted that I see the rest of his colony, and that they be able to see me. I was introduced to his kits, who approached me without fear. And when, at last, it was time for me to be on my way, my longtime friend of many years bestowed upon me the highest honor.

I was made an honorary member of the People of the Lodge.

9. Unlike most mammals, female giant beavers are often the same size as their mates, and can grow to be even larger than the male.

10. This is called malocclusion. Beavers (giant and otherwise) have incisors that grow in an arc, and when malocclusion occurs, the teeth will continue to grow, completing the arc until they eventually pierce the animal's skull. Unless, of course, the animal starves to death first because it cannot open its mouth correctly.
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And that's it for that one. Actually, in the article, footnote 10 was followed by AD&D 2nd Edition stats for the giant beaver, which at that time hadn't been updated in any of the Monstrous Compendium folders.

This was a pretty short one, and I believe it was rejected mainly because the creature in question was pretty boring, being just a larger (and more intelligent) version of the standard beaver. Still, I put the material I had learned about beavers to good use a couple years later, when I got "The Ecology of the Osquip" published (in Dragon #227), since osquips were rodents as well.

Incidentally, when I needed a druid character for "The Ecology of the Shambling Mound" (published in Dragon Annual #2), I used the name "Delbert," although that druid and this one share little besides the name.

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Enjoyed that, sir. In my AoW campaign, the party rogue investigated an abandoned farmhouse, only to run headlong into an owlbear, with fatal (and spectacularly gory) results. His last words were "It's a giant beaver!"

I've been looking to actually use a giant beaver in an adventure ever since.

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