A new species of ancient beaver that was rediscovered by researchers in The University of Texas at Austin’s fossil collections has been named after Buc-ee’s, a Texas-based chain of popular travel centers known for its cartoon beaver mascot.
The beaver is called Anchitheriomys buceei, or “A. buceei” for short.
Steve May, a research associate at the UT Jackson School of Geosciences, said that the beaver’s Texas connection and a chance encounter with a Buc-ee’s billboard are what inspired the name.
May is the lead author of the paper that describes A. buceei, along with another, much smaller, species of fossil beaver. Published in the journal Palaeontologia Electronica, the paper provides an overview of beaver occurrences along the Texas Gulf Coast from 15 million to 22 million years ago based on bones and archival records in the UT collections.
While driving down a highway in 2020, May spotted a Buc-ee’s billboard that said “This is Beaver Country.” The phrase brought to mind the Texas beaver fossils he had been studying at UT’s Texas Vertebrate Paleontology Collections.
“I thought, ‘Yeah, it is beaver country, and it has been for millions of years,’” May said.
A. buceei lived in Texas about 15 million years ago. To the casual observer, it probably wouldn’t have looked much different from beavers living in Texas today, according to study co-author Matthew Brown, the director of the Jackson School’s vertebrate paleontology collections. However, one key difference is size. A. buceei was bigger – about 30% larger than modern beavers – though still much smaller than the bear-size beavers that lived in North America during the last Ice Age.
The UT collections includes A. buceei fossils from six Texas sites. But most of what researchers know about the new fossil beaver comes from a unique partial skull from Burkeville, Texas. The fossil is a fusion of bone and brain cast that was created when sediment naturally seeped into the beaver’s brain cavity eons ago, creating a rock replica of the brain as the specimen fossilized.
High-resolution X-ray images of the skull obtained at UT Austin’s Computed Tomography Lab brought small anatomical details of the skull into clear view. These details helped May and Brown confirm that the skull belonged to a new species. But they weren’t the first to suspect it.
The skull was originally collected by a team of Texas paleontologists in 1941. One of them, Curtis Hesse, a museum curator at Texas A&M University, said in notes that he intended to name it a new species. However, Hesse died in 1945 before he could complete his study and publish his findings. Eighty years later, May and Brown, with the help of new technology and a better understanding of the fossil record of beavers, picked up where Hesse left off.
“New discoveries in the field capture lots of attention, but equally as valuable are the discoveries made in existing museum collections,” Brown said. “We know that these opportunities are littered throughout the drawers in these cabinets.”
After hearing about the ancient beaver named after his business, the founder and CEO of Buc-ee’s, Arch “Beaver” Aplin III, said that Buc-ee’s has a longer history in Texas than he initially thought.
“Buc-ee’s was founded in 1982, but we may need to rethink our beginnings,” he said.
Reference: “Anchitheriomys buceei (Rodentia, Castoridae) from the Miocene of Texas and a review of the Miocene beavers from the Texas Coastal Plain, USA” by Steven R. May and Matthew A. Brown, March 2023, Palaeontologia Electronica.
The study was funded by the UT Jackson School of Geosciences and the Texas Historical Foundation.