If today feels like the beginning of the Resistance to you too, Ms. Wolverine has some words for you to live by over the next few years, inspired by the posters that the British designed to remind people to go about their business and not to panic even as they faced a Nazi invasion. If it feels to you, too, as if we are fighting over the carcass of American democracy in the face of a fascist invasion, the time has come to be like a wolverine: grab the pieces you can, and go stash them someplace where they won’t decay, and where they’ll continue to nourish you until we’re out on the other side of all of this. Keep doing the work you do to make this world a better place, without falling into despair. Act out of love but make no compromises. Be tough. Be fierce. Be smart. Rise up. Resist.
This blog has served a number of purposes over the years. It’s been a place for me to document my work, keep track of research and news, formulate and share ideas about carnivore conservation, explore the cultural connections between people and wildlife on two continents, and collect wolverine sighting reports from people all over the country. I expected all of these outcomes, more or less, when I started the blog and the Mongolian Wolverine Project back in 2009.
What I did not expect was the community of friends and supporters that developed around what I’ve been writing. Devoted wolverine enthusiasts have taken the time to contact me, share their ideas and work, give me feedback, invite me to their field sites, meet up for face-to-face discussions, and in some cases even come to run half-marathons with me. Many of these people have been interested in wolverines for far longer than I have, and I’ve learned a lot – and gained a lot of energy – from my conversations with them.
Among these individuals, British artist Jeff Cain was one of the first and most consistent in sharing his interest in the species. Jeff belongs to that small and unique group of people who have the Wolverine Thing – that odd, inexplicable fascination with the species, a sort of sacred obsession that strikes particular people. He has traveled all over the world to photograph, draw, and paint them, and has shared a number of great wolverine stories with me. He is a wildlife filmmaker as well, again with a primary interest in wolverines, although he’s worked on a number of other species. He follows wolverine research attentively, and his paintings are sometimes dedicated to particular researchers and their work. His enthusiastic emails of encouragement, along with photos of wolverines and images of his artwork, always appear in my inbox shortly before I set out on any major expedition, usually at the moment when I’m starting to question the validity of what I’m doing, or worry that I don’t have what it takes, or am ready to have a minor meltdown over the physics of fitting 20 camera traps into a very small suitcase. Those emails have frequently provided the antidote to pre-expedition nerves, and I remain grateful for such long-distance support.
Earlier this month, I went to the post office to find a large mailing tube with British stamps waiting for me. Inside was a print of a gorgeous painting, depicting a wolverine chewing on a boar skull in Khentii Aimag, northern Mongolia. The painting was titled “Mongolian Bone Crusher,” and the print was inscribed to me. Jeff had contacted me some time ago to tell me he was working on it, after I told him that I’d found what I referred to as a boar skull that had been chewed on by a wolverine (I was mistaken. It was a deer. At a quick glance, the skull in fragments, its ivory read as an incipient tusk. But I’m glad that the painting depicts a boar skull, because that marks it as Eurasian, and not North American.) I love the fantastic detail in this painting – the texture of the fur and the moss, the gleam in the wolverine’s eye, the way he’s crunching through those old bones and living up to his gluttonous reputation. You can win all kinds of recognition in the scientific world, but having a wolverine artist paint a picture in honor of your work feels like the best possible stamp of approval. A Jeff Cain painting of one’s wolverines is a sure indicator that one has entered the official annals of the wolverine world. I am truly honored, and can’t wait to frame and hang the work.
Jeff Cain’s Wolverine Artwork website highlights his work, including the Mongolian Bone Crusher and other paintings dedicated to particular research projects and researchers. I’m adding it to the permanent list of links on the blog, and encourage everyone who appreciates wildlife art to check it out. I love this work because it combines two of my great interests: wildlife science and art. It’s a conscious attempt to express the details of what we’ve learned about wolverine ecology in the medium of beautiful and meticulous painting.
This post hardly does justice to Jeff’s work, but it’s been too-long delayed by travel and a busy schedule over the past couple of weeks, so I want to get it out there. A huge thanks to Jeff, and to all the people who follow this blog, support this work, and have taken the time to share their interest, ideas, and creative work. You are the best!
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.
A final word on Cambodia – it was not actually a wolverine-less six months, thanks to the interest and understanding of some great individuals.
Back in 2003, when I was working with a small French NGO in Siem Reap, I made friends with a woman who was a landscape architect. She was volunteering with the NGO to help people in the floating villages on the Tonle Sap create gardens on rafts. These floating gardens would help the villagers become more food self-sufficient, and also earn money from vegetable sales, which we hoped would curtail their dependence on raiding the nesting colonies of the Tonle Sap’s endangered bird species. My friend’s vision for these gardens was beautiful and inspiring, and over the long term, the project – in conjunction with other conservation measures – not only made a huge difference to the bird colonies, but also inspired my own ideas for how to work with communities in Mongolia.
My friend eventually married a Khmer man and stayed in Cambodia. In the era before Facebook and easy email connectivity in Cambodia, I lost touch with her, but often wondered how she was doing.
A few weeks after I arrived back in Cambodia, I was bicycling out to Angkor early on a Sunday morning when a motorbike pulled up beside me and a woman exclaimed, “Rebecca!” I turned to see my friend, two sleepy children draped against her. We hadn’t seen each other for six years, but the friendship quickly renewed and soon she and her family became a vital part of my life in Siem Reap.
One evening, we held a showing of the PBS documentary Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom at her house. Darran, her five year old son, watched with rapt attention, even though he speaks mostly French and Khmer. A week later, as I was preparing to leave, my friend brought me a parting gift from Darann, a wolverine drawing “pour que tu mettes dans ta yourte,” as she explained. This is the first wolverine artwork that I’ve received from a child, and I want to share it here, with many thanks to Darann for his artistic endeavors and his interest in wolverines – and to his entire family for their friendship, encouragement, and inspiration.
Thank you to everyone who turned out for Wolverine Night on Thursday! We had 250 people in the audience, and five amazing speakers.
Gianna Savoie illuminated clips of the upcoming PBS Nature wolverine documentary Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom with stories about the evolution of the film and her own journey from wildlife biologist to filmmaker. In a dark theater on the bigscreen, the clips were spine-tingling, and the audience laughed, sighed, and ooh-ed and aw-ed over the antics of the wolverines and their scientist pursuers.
Jeff Copeland discussed his new paper The bioclimatic envelope of the wolverine(Gulo gulo): do climatic restraints limit its geographic distribution?, offering an explanation of why wolverine populations depend on female habitat selection and how that selection is tied to spring snow. He built a compelling case for the threats that wolverines may be facing in the Rockies as the climate warms, and the scientific analysis underscored the need for a constituency of people who not only delight in watching documentaries about wolverines, but who understand their life history, habitat requirements, and conservation needs.
Rick Yates shared stories about his years on the Glacier Project, and had the audience laughing as he answered questions and recounted anecdotes. Doug Chadwick presented an entertaining slideshow with uproarious commentary, and then read two short passages from his new book The Wolverine Way – one about how compelling and individually tough wolverines are, the other about how fragile on the population level. Jason Wilmot wrapped up with a summary of things people can do to help: get interested, learn more, document sightings, and contribute to research, either through participating in citizen science efforts or, if possible, by donating to research organizations that are trying to find answers to the most compelling management questions.
It was a long evening, but the length illustrates the complexity of the story and, as Gianna said, the fact that you can’t fit everything in to just an hour. At a reception after the presentation, the speakers were swamped with more questions, while Doug signed copies of his book (which looks wonderful, and I’ve only read the table of contents so far.) I was impressed by the quality of people’s questions – everything from an older gentleman asking me why wolverines require such large territories if prey species are abundant, to an eight-year-old girl earnestly requesting a brochure so that she could read more about wolverines – and overwhelmed by all the positive energy.
So thank you again to everyone who helped the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative make this event happen: to the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole, who co-funded both our backcountry wolverine project and this event; and to the reception co-sponsors, the Wolverine Foundation, the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, The Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife, the Murie Center, the Winter Wildlands Alliance, and American Wildlands. Thanks to those who hosted our speakers in their homes, to reporter Johanna Love for her great articles in the Jackson Hole News and Guide, to the Museum of Wildlife Art for all their assistance, to the audience and to all those who came up to us at breakfast the next morning and around town to express their interest – Jackson is a great community. Thanks especially to the speakers for making their long journeys (physical, imaginative, and intellectual) to arrive at Wolverine Night and speak to the importance of conserving this incredible species.
The field crew released F3 shortly after my post on Wednesday. They didn’t definitively determine whether she was lactating, but they noted some odd behavior and decided to let her go to be on the safe side. Again unlike M57, she sprinted out of the trap and was gone almost instantly. The crew is tracking her, and our pilots will fly her to see if she’s localized. Since a wolverine generally moves on a constant circuit of its territory, any sitting still indicates that something is going on, and in the case of females, that’s usually a den.
In other news, and completely unrelated to anything serious, here’s the cover for the first episode of Enlightenment Junkies, the world’s only superhero comic book dealing with real wolverines. No adamantium in sight, but don’t we all look great in spandex?