The only obvious thing about wolverines is the fact that they have always been – and still are – mostly a mystery. Wolverine biologist Jason Wilmot recently unearthed three images spanning the early decades of natural history, and they neatly summarize how little was known about the animal at the time.
The first dates from 1797; the “wolverene” looks like a striped possum, with the anatomically mystifying distinction of having four digits on its front paws and five on the back:
The second, three years later in 1800, features a “glutton” standing in docile profile:
The third, from 1828, reaches for scientific classification but places the wolverine, along with the badger, in the bear family – Ursus gulo and Ursus meles. The mistake, in the early days of taxonomy, is understandable. (Viverra, by the way, is a genus of civet.)
These pictures arc across a particularly interesting moment in the history of science and biology. During the eighteenth century the Enlightenment and the printing press had fueled the advent of the Age of Reason, an exploration of the natural world, and a turn towards systematizing knowledge and inquiry. By 1797, the giddy early days of this new way of seeing the world had given way to the chaos of the French Revolution, the final death knell of the old European model of kingship-by-divine-right and the accompanying assumption that the Catholic church and religion had the power to explain everything in the universe. As the nineteenth century began and the European encounter with the rest of the world’s cultures and environments escalated through colonial expansion into Asia and Africa, a much broader swath of the world’s species (extant and extinct) came under the gaze of the new and systematic European methods of inquiry and explanation. In 1828, a young Charles Darwin had just abandoned his original program of medical study to indulge a passion for natural history. At the time that the writer and illustrator of the above image was proposing that gulo and meles belonged among the bears, Darwin was in his second year at Cambridge, where his father had sent him to become a pastor after he neglected his medical studies. Instead, Darwin took up what was then referred to as ‘Natural Theology,’ and three years later he stepped aboard the Beagle. In 1859, On the Origin of Species rolled off the printing presses and propelled biology into a new era.
The images above, apparently plates from books, were acquired as prints, without context, so I don’t know where they came from or who created them. The ferment of ideas about the natural world that the authors, illustrators, and readers doubtless contemplated remain fun to think about; at least the wolverine was present among these discussions, even if in slightly misshapen representation. Maybe, during those days at Cambridge, Darwin paused for a moment to look at a picture of the ‘bears,’ and wonder how they came to look so different.
Here’s an image to wrap up this digression into the history of science and bring this post into the present – the most recent camera check from the Idaho panhandle camera trapping project yielded their first wolverine of the season, in the Selkirks! This is great news, and in light of the images above, the accompanying blog’s implied disappointment that we don’t know the gender or identity of the animal is somewhat moderated. In two hundred years, we’ve progressed from not knowing what the animal looks like or what family it belongs to, to being disappointed not to know the identity of specific individuals. In the history of the wolverine’s place in science, that seems like pretty good progress.
As a postscript, wolverine image-making has progressed into an entirely new realm with the news that Cass, the wolverine at the Billings Zoo in Montana, has taken up abstract painting. Self portrait? Attempt to categorize his own knowledge of humans? Or simply an expression of his desire for a piece of steak, the usual reward for his work? Two hundred years from now, maybe the field of animal-created art will look back to its beginnings in the early 21st century and express amazement at how little we understood of what animals wanted to tell us. Then again…maybe he just wants the steak.