E.O. Wilson on Wolverines

Eminent ecologist and renowned ant expert E.O. Wilson published The Creation in 2006. The book tries to bridge the perceived gap between Christianity and science, making the argument that if you claim to love God, you can do nothing less than devote yourself to the protection of God’s work. Whether you refer to that work as biodiversity or the Creation, the ultimate object for conservationist scientists and for the Christian faithful should – if your theology is coherent – be the same.

I haven’t read the entire book, but a colleague brought to my attention the fact that the wolverine makes a starring appearance in chapter six, ‘Two Magnificent Animals.’ How to describe the delight of discovering that E.O. Wilson, the man whose papers you read with avid attention in grad school and whose work defined the field you are now in, thinks that your species is magnificent? It made me smile to myself for the whole day. It made my week. And it is particularly apt because Wilson pioneered work on island biogeography, which is exactly how we now think about wolverines at the southern edge of their range – that is, islands of population (high mountain ranges) separated by oceans of unsuitable habitat (lowlands). Wilson gave us the scientific vocabulary to consider these things, with important implications for how we might conserve the wolverine. (The second of the two magnificent animals, in case you are curious, is the pitchfork ant.)

Below, the wolverine in Wilson’s words:

No words and no art can capture the full depth and intricacy of the living world – as biologists have come increasingly to understand it. If a miracle is a phenomenon that we cannot understand, then all species are something of a miracle. Each and every kind of organism, by virtue of the exacting conditions that produced it, is profoundly unique and shows its diagnostic traits reluctantly.

To press this point, let me tell you about two of the species I have personally found of compelling interest.

The Wolverine

I have never seen a wild wolverine, and I hope I never will. This weasel-like mammal of the north woods is legendary for its ferocity, cunning, and elusiveness. Chunky in form, three to four feet long and weighing twenty to forty pounds, it is one of Earth’s smallest top-tier predators. It feeds on everything from rats to deer. It can chase cougars and wolf packs away from downed prey, and drag carcasses three times its own weight. It has fuzzy black fur, but this is no animal you’d want to pet. It has sharp teeth, a predator’s retractable claws, and the face of a miniature bear. It walks flat footed and low to the ground, such that when standing still it seems poised to spring forward….

The other vernacular names given it, devil bear, skunk bear, caracajou, and glutton, and even its brutish scientific name, Gulo gulo, suggest the gap that exists between the wolverine and humanity.  Add to that the difficulty of spotting a wolverine in the wild. Individuals are both solitary and exceptionally shy of humans. They wander far and wide – here today, over there somewhere tomorrow, and gone for good the day after that.

It’s savage demeanor is not, however, the reason I want to avoid the wolverine. The reason is that I find Gulo gulo the embodiment of wildness, and I know that there will still be untrammeled habitats on earth if wolverines still roam there. I trust they will hold on in the vast subarctic forest, somewhere in North America or Eurasia, in places too far to be reached by vehicles… Wildlife biologists will need to know the general status of the wolverine in order to save the species, but I hope there will always be remote regions of its range barred to trappers and even scientists. Please let part of the wolverine stay a mystery!


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5 thoughts on “E.O. Wilson on Wolverines

  1. This is great! I was just looking through the shelf of a friend of mine, and it was filled with books by E. O. Wilson. I will have to see if she has this one. Or maybe, I will just pick one up and read it!

  2. Pingback: News from the Wider Wild World « The Wolverine Blog

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