Hundreds of years ago, there was a large and thriving population of European beavers (Castor fiber) in the UK Europe and Asia. There were literally hundreds of thousands of them. However, they were nearly brought to extinction, not for their meat or fur, but because of a medicine that hadn’t even been invented yet.
Both European beavers and their larger cousin, American beavers, have anal sacks located at the base of the tail near the anus, that contain a substance known as castoreum. The beavers use this to mark territories and it plays a part in attracting mates. Somewhere along the line, someone discovered that castoreum had the ability to alleviate pain, reduce swelling, and help treat fevers. Castoreum quickly became a natural “miracle medication” that was highly sought after.
This led to the slaughter of many thousands of beavers, including American beavers, though in the case of American beavers, conservation efforts were put into place early on. By the early 1900s, there were only about 1,200 European beavers remaining. With a little help from mankind, who caused the problem, to begin with, the European beavers are recovering and have been restored to many parts of their former range, including the UK. They still aren’t popular in many places because of their propensity to chew down trees and to dam up flowing water.
So what was the undiscovered medicine that made castoreum sought after? Among other things, castoreum contains methoxysalicylic acid; a substance that is very similar, both chemically and in effects, to acetylsalicylic acid. Today, we know acetylsalicylic acid as “aspirin”. Acetylsalicylic acid was actually in use for pain, swelling, and fevers long before the beavers were slaughtered, though, and long before aspirin was invented. Salicylic acid is a chemical found in the inner bark and leaves of all trees and bushes in the willow family.
Incidentally, although the European beaver is now protected, there is still a demand for castoreum, to the tune of over $5 per ounce, and it is used in perfume and as a food additive.
Did you ever hear of castoreum and how the demand for it nearly caused the extinction of the European beaver?