Welcome to my blog! Here I will be recording my experiences and travels as a 2018-19 Fulbright Scholar working in Sevilla, Spain, not to mention whatever other thoughts and reflections come bubbling to the surface as I lay a pen to paper (and later fingertip to keyboard). For my first post, I’d like to clear the air by addressing a rather persistent and baffling question that has surrounded much of my professional outreach: What is all this Gulo business?
The naturalists among my readers will be quick to notice that Gulo is the genus and specific epithet of the wolverine (Gulo gulo), a stocky, hyper-aggressive, and somewhat mysterious member of the weasel family found in arctic and alpine wildernesses in Eurasia and North America. This bizarre animal, with nicknames in a number of languages translating to “rotten bear”, “nasty cat”, “quick hatch”, and “skunk bear”, is a motif in my life, from my Twitter handle (@Gulothoughts) to my business cards and my office décor.
The prominence of this animal’s image in my professional and personal branding has led to no small amount of confusion and frustration among colleagues and acquaintances in ecology and beyond. I cannot say the number of mammalogists and carnivore-specialists I’ve disappointed after they’ve instinctively followed me on Twitter, or how many UMichigan grads (whose mascot is the wolverine) wrinkled their noses to see no sign of their school on my CV. “But Charles, you study birds,” protest my fellow ornithologists and naturalists, “Why can’t you just put a nice moorhen or scissor-tailed flycatcher on there?” It’s true, most of my work has focused on birds, but the Gulo is there for very different reasons. Namely, to symbolize certain characteristics of my approach to conservation, ecology, and knowledge in general.
Yes, I’m afraid it’s that boring. Close friends have gotten much more creative, attributing the connection to various personal traits, including my short stature (thanks guys), my readiness to fight people bigger than me (I swear that one just isn’t true), my love of hiking mountains and open, undeveloped spaces, and my dietary habits (Gulo translates to “huge eater”). Two close friends from a First Nations tribe made reference to legends that depict the wolverine as a trickster and shapeshifting spirit, drawing parallels with my love of practical jokes and animated style of storytelling.
Despite the creativity of these, they certainly weren’t the idea that started all of this. As a conservation biologist, I am committed to applied science; using knowledge to achieve results. In this case, like a medical doctor applies knowledge from chemistry, physiology, and molecular biology to help patients, conservation biologists apply knowledge from ecology, geography, economics, and other fields to protect species and ecosystems. This requires a wide range of knowledge and a continual commitment to taking in new information from any source that would be helpful or effective, a disciplinary omnivory and gluttony. Wolverines eat a ravenously, and consume a wide variety of foods, eating with a ferocious opportunism to satisfy their voracious appetites. As such, they are an excellent symbol for the voracious study habits I am cultivating as part of my approach to conservation biology; I am equally interested in scientific publications from 2018 as I am in accounts from 18th-century naturalists. Wolverines also occupy huge areas of land (with home ranges in excess of 65,000 acres!), and in those wanderings represent the ability to range over a diversity of topics and disciplines, and a mind that roams widely over available knowledge to find solutions. For me, then, the wolverine is a symbol of my professional attitude toward my field and the way I choose to approach it.
Needless to say, I will make reference to the Gulo with some frequency over the course of this blog; it is part of the reason, for example, that I have chosen to pursue a Fulbright grant in the first place. I am keenly interested in learning about how other, very different nations approach and treat the conservation of earth’s ecosystems and wildlife, a topic which is often deeply steeped in their culture, history, and philosophy. As an American, I have my own experiences and opinions on the topic, and know that I have much to learn from the European approach, and many others across the globe. Symbolizing this, I have brought a Gulo of my own on the trip (fortunately not a living one), and it will be tagging along with me on my travels and adventures in España. Expect to see more of both of us!