About dam time: new book showcases the remarkable world of beavers

Michael Runtz Dam Builders
A perfect mixture of science, poetic anecdotes and gorgeous photos makes up the foundations of Michael Runtz’s Dam Builders: The Natural History of Beavers and Their Ponds (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, February 2015).

Runtz, a renowned naturalist and photographer, and an instructor at Carleton University, has taken all that is incredible about beavers – from their long evolutionary history, to their social structure, to their aquatic engineering skills – and compiled it in his new book.

It is the combination of these three passions of Runtz that make this book such an essential part of any animal, nature, history or photography lover’s collection.

As though sitting in his classroom, Runtz is able to explore the intricacies of beaver biology in a manner that makes sense to the layperson:

When hot, a beaver diverts more blood into this extremity where up to 25 percent of the animal’s internal heat can be transferred through the leathery skin to the surrounding water. Conversely, a beaver swimming in cold water can conserve precious body heat by reducing the amount of blood flowing to the tail.

But in the next breath (and yes, it feels as though you’re listening to an old friend tell a story when reading), he brings readers into the mind of a naturalist – critical observation with a sense of poetry:

The incredibly loud crack of a beaver’s tail slapped on a pond’s surface carries far and wide, sending out an alarm to family members both above and below the surface of the pond, warning them of danger. The startling sound is very familiar to anyone who has canoed across a beaver-inhabited waterway near dusk or has paid a visit to a beaver pond at night. The explosive sound that makes hearts leap into throats undoubtedly startles predators; if the slap causes a potential attacker to pause for even a split second, a beaver could be afforded sufficient time to vanish into the safety of deeper water.

And the photographs – well, this is not an appropriate venue for displaying them. But the book is filled with incredible stills of beavers, their landscapes and their ecological engineering skills collected over the course of 30 years.

Of course, a book about beavers would not be complete without examining their history, albeit a slightly frightening one. Runtz eloquently pulled together the complete tale, from the use of beavers in pre-contact Aboriginal life to the mini-wars caused by the fur trade and the greed that led to the near extinction of North American beavers. Interestingly, Runtz parallels this with a brief history of the Eurasian beaver, which paints more a picture of human nature than it does beavers.

Page after page, Runtz shows the importance, majesty and frankly remarkable world of beavers to readers.

Dam Builders: The Natural History of Beavers and Their Ponds is set to be released on February 1, 2015. An interview with author Michael Runtz can be heard on Episode 212 of Defender Radio on January 19, 2015.

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