Sunday, September 12, 2010

Badger vs. Wolverine

Forget "Pirates versus Ninjas." Let's talk about a long-anticipated duel of Pleistocene relicts1. A civil war in the family Mustelidae. A clash of famously bad-tempered North Americans who lead bizarre triple lives as angry carnivores, official state mammals, and Big Ten mascots. Let's talk about badgers and wolverines.

My interest in badgers, particularly the American badger (Taxidea taxus), is well known to anyone who can stand to be in the same room as I am for more than fifteen minutes. On more than one occasion, I have identified myself to zookeepers as a "badger enthusiast." While Eurasian badgers (Meles meles) tend to be social, American badgers are infamously cranky. They can barely stand each other long enough to mate.

The wolverine (Gulo gulo) is one of those interesting critters that enjoys a circumpolar distribution - that is, they are found at similar latitudes throughout Eurasia and North America. While they superficially resemble bears, they are actually overgrown weasels. Wolverines are legendarily badass. Its scientific name means "glutton." They have been observed chasing grizzly bears away from a kill.

The badger and the wolverine are the represented in the state nickname, official state mammal, and university mascots of Wisconsin and Michigan, respectively. In both cases, the reason for the affinity has little to do with the animal itself. The name "badger" for a resident of Wisconsin comes from the early days of lead mining in the southern part of the state, when miners would spend the winter living inside their tunnels2. The miners' fossorial habits led to their being known as "badgers." Michigan became known as the Wolverine State during the Toledo War3, a boundary dispute between Michigan and Ohio over the Maumee Valley. The Ohioans reacted to the Michiganders' attempt to usurp territory by proclaiming that "Michigan is as hungry for land as a wolverine is for flesh." While there are wild badgers in Wisconsin, there are very few records of wolverines in Michigan in historical times4, and these are believed to have wandered in from Canada or been released as exotic pets which have outgrown their welcomes.

Returning to the question at hand, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History may have the answer: in the battle of badger versus wolverine, the winner is...the musk ox?

With that issue settled, I can finally sleep at night. Animal mounts above seen at the NMNH Hall of Mammals.

1 Relict refers to a "remnant of a formerly widespread species that persists in an isolated area (M-W)." For example, pika populations at low elevations in the Great Basin are relicts of a period of cooler climates.

2 Miners in the lead districts of northern Illinois, by contrast, traveled up the rivers to the mines in the spring and back down the rivers in the fall, mirroring the migration of suckerfish. Illinois is sometimes known as "The Sucker State" as a result, though most Cheeseheads are content to call us "Illinoyances."

3 In the end, Ohio held on to Toledo and the Maumee Valley, and for some reason, Michigan got the Upper Peninsula as a consolation prize. No wonder the Yoopers feel ignored by the government in Lansing and occasionally talk of secession.

4 A wolverine was sighted in the "Thumb" of Lower Michigan in February 2004. It was tracked by a devoted high school science teacher for several years until it died of natural causes in March 2010. It is believed to have been a released exotic pet.


Alice said...

So what is the history of the Wildcats?

dek said...

I published my opinion of Wildcats last fall.