by Whit Gibbons

March 21, 2004

A confirmed sighting of a wolverine in Michigan, the Wolverine State, might seem as natural as seeing a yellowhammer, aka flicker, in the Yellowhammer State, Alabama. Or a sabal palmetto in the Palmetto State, South Carolina. Not so. Flickers are seen in abundance every year throughout Alabama, and palmettos are found naturally in the coastal half of South Carolina. But the wolverine spotted in Michigan is possibly the first documented sighting of the species in the state ever. The particular animal may even have been an escapee from a zoo or possibly a transient from Canada where they do occur naturally.

Wolverines are in the same family of carnivorous mammals as otters, skunks, and badgers. They have a reputation for strength unrivaled by any mammal their size. According to reliable reports, a wolverine coming upon a mountain lion or grizzly bear eating its prey will drive the larger predator away. They are also known for systematically running the traplines of commercial trappers and eating the captured furbearing animals, as well as entering cabins in search of food when no one is around, and killing livestock. Because of such behavior, wolverines developed an overstated reputation for being vicious and uncaring about human property. Nonetheless, selecting an animal that represents power and persistence as a state symbol makes sense, but in Michigan's case picking a species that was actually native to the state would have been appropriate.

The plants and animals chosen as symbols of different states tell something about the people, or at least about the politics and state legislators, of times past. Some of the more enlightened choices are ones that focus on unusual zoological or botanical entities characteristic of the state. For example, the Red Hills salamander, a rare and unusual animal found only in Alabama was designated the state's amphibian more than forty years ago. South Carolina's state amphibian is the spotted salamander. Tennessee, Kansas, and New Hampshire also have salamanders as their state amphibian.

Of course, simply because a state puts its stamp of approval on an out-of-the-ordinary symbol in one legislative session (often because of the dedication and influence of a single legislator or citizen-at-large) does not mean the same state cannot make less-than-inspired decisions in other years. For example, the state freshwater fish of Alabama is the largemouth bass. Alabama has more species of freshwater fish than any other state in the union, including such wonderful creatures as sturgeons, rare and brilliantly colored creek darters, and more than a dozen kinds of catfish most people have never seen. Why pick a largemouth bass? Maybe because bass are also the state fish of Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Texas? That in itself is reason enough not to pick the species to represent your state.

The fishes selected as symbolic of different states are notable as a group in being game or commercial varieties. Tennessee has two species: a state commercial fish (the channel catfish) and a sport fish (big surprise here-the largemouth bass). The influence of sport fishing on the choice of state fishes is readily evident in that a species of trout is the state fish in no fewer than 18 states, from New England to Washington to California and even Nevada. The commercially important channel catfish is the state fish of 4 states. The sporting striped bass is also the state fish of 4 states, including South Carolina, Maryland, and 2 New England states, all of which have far more intriguing native fish to pick from.

Lack of imagination and a trend toward supporting commercial interests rather than environmental ones might not be surprising, but choosing the camellia as the state flower of Alabama in 1959 is indeed surprising. In 1927 the goldenrod was officially designated the state flower. Goldenrods are beautiful fall-blooming flowers native to the state. Despite a widespread misperception among many southerners, goldenrods do not cause hay fever allergies. The real culprit is ragweed, which looks similar but is not nearly as pretty. Thus goldenrods got some undeserved bad press and were booted from the state list. With the camellia, Alabama now has a pretty Asian flower as its state symbol.

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