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Dancing with Badgers:

A Dry Discussion of Who's Who and What's What

Well, this is the business end of the discussion, if you will. In the interest of completeness, I'll provide a brief summary of the mustelid family group. Then, in case you'd like to pursue the subject in more detail, I'll conclude with some recommended links and even a book you might like.

A Rogue's Gallery

The mustelids are a diverse group that encompasses weasels, badgers, skunks, and otters. Let's take a review look at each of these four common denominations, starting with the one we've skipped so far, the otters. I haven't spent any time discussing the otters, primarily because they don't fit either of the criteria that interested me: They get pretty good press, in general, and there isn't much mystery about them. They are a diverse bunch, even in the context of the huge diversity the mustelids represent. There is a sea otter who is effectively a non-terrestrial creature like the seal. There are the familiar river otters, whose water sports have been immortalized by Disney nature films and their imitators. There is the giant otter of South America, the largest mustelid at over 50 pounds. They are all pretty clearly related species, in terms of appearance and behavior.

Wolverine: A Portrait
Link to Mustelmorphica

For a fun site on the mustelids, try MustelMorphica, created and maintained by a weremink....

If the half-dozen sub-families of otters have converged in appearance and behavior, the weasels took the opposite direction. In wildly separate ecological niches, the four-ounce least weasel, the four-pound martens, and the thirty-pound wolverine co-exist globally. Although the stoat and the least weasel might, to the untrained eye, seem to be the same animal, and the martens betray their common ancestry just as we can all see the relationship of house cat to tiger, many of the mustelinae, the weasels' brothers and sisters if you will rather than cousins, hardly even seem related. There's the grison of South America, which appears to be a stretched badger and lives like a mink, as comfortable in water as on land, and the zorilla of Africa, which looks like nothing but another skunk. There's the mink itself, which looks like a weasel and lives like an otter.

But all that is nothing, compared to the chaos of being a badger. There are three sub-families of the mustelidae that are commonly called "badgers:" melinae, melliflorinae, and taxinae. The latter two sub-families consist of one animal each, the African honey badger and the American badger. The melinae include a host of creatures that you can apparently start fights over by making declarations about their interrelationships at Zoology Department parties. The stink badgers are really skunks! (This is a surprise?) Or so some skunk folks say. The hog badgers, you'll be happy to hear, are not "really hogs," and the ferret badgers, represented by two animals in Southeast Asia, don't look much like ferrets (or like badgers, actually, but never mind).

In contrast, aside from the mystery of the zorilla — who looks enough like a skunk to fool a skunk, much less a naturalist, but is a weasel nonetheless — the skunks are a pretty straightforward bunch. True, they are, like the otters, more diversified genetically than they are visually (yet another reason the banishment of the zorilla is a bit of a puzzle best left to the specialists), but they are mostly black, charming, potentially nasty kitties with a variety of white markings.

Want to Know More? Good Luck

Wolverine in Snow

There are very few naturalist books that spend much time on the weasels, and the web sites range from scientific to frivolous with misinformation at both. Imagine my surprise when I noticed that the six-to-ten-pound tayra, which sounds like nothing more than a South American version of the large marten called a fisher, was reported by the University of Michigan's Animal Diversity site as reaching lengths of 700 cm, with a 300 cm tail. That's a thousand centimeters, folks, or ten meters. Since a meter is 39 inches, that makes the ten-pound tayra potentially 32 feet long. I was dubious. Then I noticed the disclaimer at the bottom of every page: "The Animal Diversity Web is intended as an educational resource written largely by and for college students. It doesn't contain all the latest scientific information about every species, nor can we guarantee its accuracy." One can only wonder what the educational justification was behind putting on the web "for students" what appears to be unedited and unreviewed data, whether "by students" or not. In any case, don't bet the mortgage on a University of Michigan "fact."

There are sites dedicated to skunks ( and badgers (Steve Jackson) and even one for wolverines. There are pages that offer beautiful pictures of Canadian mustelids, like those posted by McGill University in Montréal (no text, but their picture of a least weasel is wonderful). There is a whole slew of sites devoted to the problem of weasel importation to New Zealand. I'm sympathetic to their plight, but I don't feel moved to publicize anti-weasel sentiment here, however justifiable it might be.

For so much of the web, we deal with a neglected attic of data, a universe too huge and too disorganized to search, but a treasure pile nonetheless. The first time I went to a major library to find a book about wolverines, decades ago, I had a valuable lesson in obscurity. There are no books about wolverines, I was told. Well, weasels, then. Nope. Badgers? British lit, under Grahame. Sad, because they are among the wonders of our wonderful planet, this rapscallion gang of brigands, assassins, and clowns.

— Mick McAllister

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