Every time I see a reference to a wolverine, I feel this unsettling deficit in my knowledge bank. Biology majors are supposed to have at least a passing familiarity with living items but my brain never remembers what to do with “wolverine.” What the hell is it? It’s like the nasty uncle at Raccoon Thanksgiving. All I do know is that there aren’t that many of them and if you think you’ve seen a wolverine, you probably haven’t, but you might still be in trouble.

So I looked it up. Wolverines are weasels. Real big weasels. The largest terrestrial weasel, in fact, which leads to other questions. Are there airborne weasels? There are not. Evidently they are distinguishing them from the swimming weasels, your otters and your minks, although both have been observed also to scamper on dry land.

One of the best things about your average weasel is it’s tubular. The wolverine is elongated also but its thick fur and diet of Almost Everything tend to ruin its line. The badger also is not tubular so much as trilobite-shaped. Badgers and wolverines both have a reputation for irascibility but probably the smaller weasels come off the same way, if you’re a chipmunk, which you aren’t. The wolverine primarily scavenges its dinner, which is another way of saying it steals it from whoever killed it legit. That would mean you probably have nothing to worry about unless you’re already dead, except that sometimes wolverines take down bison.

Sea otters are larger, and plenty capable of mayhem (do not allow your cocker spaniel to turn its back on one), but they can get away with it on account of being adorable.

The littlest weasel is called the Least Weasel, which seems like piling on. Sure, somebody has to be the least among us, but it’s rude to point it out like that. Taxonomy-wise, however, the little weasel is better off than some birds we could name, such as the intermediate egret or the invisible rail. I’m not even sure how you are supposed to put the invisible rail on your birding life list. For all I know, I’ve already seen it.

photo by Brian Gratwicke

Then there’s the Inaccessible Island Rail. What is it with the rails? The Inaccessible Island rail is the smallest living flightless bird and lives exclusively on Inaccessible Island, although someone must have found it. Supposedly this little volcanic island was discovered numerous times but was never boarded and pillaged. Some sailors were able to land on it but were “unable to reach the interior.” The island’s only marketable items are eggs and guano. Perhaps the sailors who did show up to guano-land were simply disinclined to explore further. At any rate being inaccessible to humans is a very good thing for the flora and fauna of any place. No one even cared enough about this island to drop off a single pregnant rat, which would have polished off the rail population in no time.

Inaccessible Island is about midway between the southern tips of Africa and South America—basically, in the middle of nowhere. The only way to get there is to sail there from South Africa and it takes seven days. Nevertheless it was inhabited from 1871-1873 by two Russian brothers, Intermediate and Least Stoltenhoff, who had the bright idea of selling seal meat to passing traders. Unfortunately there weren’t a lot of those (see “nowhere, middle of,” above); they nearly starved to death, and when someone finally offered to take them off the island in 1873, they flopped over trembling at the chance.

To this day nobody has been able to reach the interior. It’s a very steep volcano and no rumors of gold afflict it, so it’s partly a matter of lack of motivation. But it does make you wonder. The Inaccessible Wolverine’s secret is safe with me.