Wolverine Fur


Wolverine angry about being in storage at the Alaska State Museum

Wolverine angry about being in storage at the Alaska State Museum

I have heard many times that wolverine (and wolf) are desirable furs for parka ruffs because they easily shed frost that forms from breathing.   You’ve seen (and maybe experienced) frost buildup on beards that is difficult and sometimes painful to break off.  But by all accounts, frost will fall right off wolverine fur.  


My questions is, WHY?

Here are some possible clues.

1) Under the microscope, I don’t readily notice anything special about the scale pattern, medulla, or structure that raises an eyebrow.

2) Some references (non-scientific) mention that the individual hairs have low water content, and this is supposed to be a contributing factor in not forming ice.  I am not quite sure how the physics (or the biology) work in that scenario.  Is there less free water in the hair and therefore less to bond with the ice on the outside of the hair shaft?

3)  Other references mention that the hair has an oil in it that helps. I get it, oil and water don’t mix.  But then there is the anecdotal evidence of my dog.  He’s a mutt, and in the snow he’s the teflon dog…never gets snowballs matted in his fur, never gets snow stuck in his paw pads.  We know plenty of other dogs here who have trouble with snow.  And yet, my dog isn’t the kind of dog who has the oily water-dog skin and he doesn’t smell “doggy,” a smell I attribute to those greasier breeds.  In fact, he’s asleep next to me as I write this, and smells very nice.

4) The exhibit designer I work with, Paul Gardinier, suggests the effect might be related instead to the geometry of the hair…the fact that it is very long and flexible and there is a whiplash or waving action that causes the hair to flex and the brittle ice to break off before it gets well-established as a thick crust.

5) Finally, I can’t help but wonder, shouldn’t the fur of all the mammals in Alaska resist getting frosted up?  Granted, people aren’t breathing on most of those critters, but buildup of frost under high humidity conditions sounds like a biological disadvantage, doesn’t it? 

I am pondering this…any ideas?  If I get something that rings true, I will post it in the comments…


2 Responses to Wolverine Fur

  1. ellencarrlee says:

    May 19, 2009
    Visiting the mall near the AIC conference hotel in LA, came across a store called the “Art of Shaving” and got chatting with the salesman about badger hair. The reason it is chosen for shaving brushes seems to be its ability to retain water. Apparently, low-end genuine badger hair shaving brushes are called “pure” and come from the belly of the badger. They are a bit coarse, and some folks like that because it has an exfoliating quality. The next level up in quality and price are the so-called” fine” badger hair brushes, with the fur coming from the neck area. Both these kinds are for the more modern consumer market. The traditional barber shop brushes and the top-of-the-line consumer ones are called “silvertip” and are the softest of the three, made from hairs on the badger’s neck. Apparently, with these finer brushes you also need to use less product to get a good lather. Interesting clues here. Other realms of interesting clues may be the boar’s bristle brushes preferred for hairbrushes and the animal hairs used for paintbrushes. Just today at the Getty I saw a display of brushes used for Japanese lacquerwares…the finest was apparently made from the tail hairs of a rat. But the short, flat brushes used for painting for the red interiors of the lacquer boxes were apparently made from the human hair of female pearl divers? Still, the badger hair issue deserves some investigation, since I think badgers and wolverines are both from the family mustelidae (weasels.) Perhaps I should do a “frost test” with Scott’s shaving brush…

  2. Marcus says:

    Wolverine are part of the mustelidae (weasel) family, and as the name implies, they do have musk glands that dogs do not. A review of the scientific literature will show that every member of the mustelidae family with exception of the sea otter (Enhydra lutris) has glands – but the sea otter gland is argued both ways. If you want to know if it is an oil issue, then try washing the fur really good until there is no more oils and the frost shouldn’t stick. At least that is what elders have told me when they explained about not washing Doyon (Athabascan word for wolverine) fur. If you want some really good information on this consider speaking to some Alaska Native elders who live near wolverines regarding this issue and you will find out.

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