Buckeyes vs. Wolverines: How They Match Up ... Biologically (and Beyond)

Brutus Buckeye image

Editor: This is a revised version of a press release originally posted on Nov. 27, 2013.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Saturday, Nov. 29, brings the big annual football game between The Ohio State University Buckeyes and the University of Michigan Wolverines. Here’s how the two rivals’ mascots stack up -- zoologically, botanically and beyond.

1. Size.

Ohio buckeyes can grow up to 60 feet tall, the height of a six-story building, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Their branches can spread more than 30 feet wide, or 10-plus yards, or more than the distance to get a first down.

With a weight of up to 40 pounds, a height of 16 inches and a length of 44 inches, a wolverine’s size compares to that of a cocker spaniel.

Advantage: Buckeyes.

2. Speed.

The wolverine, says New Hampshire Public Television’s NatureWorks website, “is very quick and can run at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour when chasing its prey.” Wolverines also can “travel long distances over rough terrain and deep snow,” a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website says.

The buckeye, a tree, is rooted in the ground.

Advantage: Wolverines.

3. Strength.

Tales of the wolverine’s strength -- driving off bears, etc. -- may be exaggerated, says an informative U.S Fish and Wildlife Service newsletter article (pdf). But the article also says the wolverine’s “muscular jaws (are) capable of breaking bone and tearing apart even frozen flesh.”

The Wood Database website says the Ohio buckeye’s “low strength and bland appearance limit it to basic utility purposes.” The Ohio Department of Natural Resources notes that the buckeye’s lightweight wood “is used in the production of artificial limbs.” In 1833, a Daniel Drake, speaking in Cincinnati, said the tree’s ability to regrow “denotes to all the world that buckeyes are not easily conquered."

Advantage: Even, based on extra credit to the buckeye for serving Homo sapiens. Of note, the tree’s nuts are sometimes mentioned as folk remedies for arthritis and hemorrhoids.

4. Smell.

Ohio State’s Ohio Trees book says the Ohio buckeye’s bark is “ill-smelling when bruised.” The Illinois State Museum mentions the “horrid, skunk-like odor” of the Ohio buckeye’s leaves. The National Arbor Day Foundation notes, "Ohio buckeye is seldom used as a street tree because of the odor it produces when damaged, giving it the popular name of fetid buckeye.”

Wolverines mark their territory “with secretions from anal scent glands and urine,” says the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web. A website by the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, part of the U.S. Geological Survey, notes, “Like other members of the Mustelidae family, including the skunk, the wolverine is capable of emitting a foul smell from two well-developed glands.”

Advantage: Even.

5. Scientific name.

The wolverine is Gulo gulo, which comes from the Latin word meaning glutton -- in this case, times two.

The Ohio buckeye is Aesculus glabra. “Aesculus” stems from the Latin name for horse chestnut, the buckeye’s close cousin. “Glabrous” means “lacking hair.” Put it all together, it spells “Hairless horse chestnut.”

Advantage: Wolverines.

6. Nicknames.

Other names for the Ohio buckeye are fetid buckeye and stinking buckeye.

The wolverine, the BBC’s Nature  website  says, is also called glutton, quickhatch, skunk bear, stink-bear and carcajou.

Advantage: Even, but style points for “carcajou.”

7. Candy named after it.

Missouri-based Russell Stover Candies makes “University of Michigan Milk Chocolate Money,” whose wrapper features the tagline “In Wolverines We Trust.”

A Google search for “buckeye candy,” a buckeye-nut-resembling chocolate-and-peanut-butter confection, brings 1.1 million hits. North Canton, Ohio’s Harry London Candies, for example, sells the buckeye-filled Buckeye Bundle. A search for “buckeye candy recipe” brings 220,000 hits alone for make-your-own buckeyes.

Advantage: Buckeyes.

8. Episode of the PBS show ‘Nature’ about it.

The Ohio buckeye: None known.

The wolverine: “Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom.”

Advantage: Wolverines.

9. Benefits provided to dainty, fast-moving birds.

The wolverine: Unknown.

The Missouri Department of Conservation says hummingbirds “frequent the greenish yellow, tubular flowers” of Ohio buckeyes for their nectar. Ohio’s nesting hummingbird, and Michigan’s, too, for that matter, is the ruby-throated. (Photo: Ohio buckeye flowers by Paul Wray, Iowa state University.)

Advantage: Buckeyes.

10. Toxicity.

The wolverine: Unknown. But the urine it excretes to mark its territory contains small amounts of various volatile compounds, according to the 2009 study “Potential semiochemicals in urine from free ranging wolverines” in the journal Biochemical Systematics and Ecology.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Guide (pdf) warns in red letters that “Ohio buckeye is highly toxic when taken internally.” The danger applies to people and most animals (but apparently not squirrels) and comes from all parts -- nuts, leaves and sprouts. The University of Illinois Veterinary Medicine Library says, “Ohio buckeye poisoning affects the central nervous system ... Prominent symptoms are an uneasy or staggering gait, weakness, severe trembling and sometimes vomiting. Coma usually precedes death.” The chemicals responsible, the library notes, are glycosides, “especially a glycosidic saponin called aesculin and possibly a narcotic alkaloid.”

Advantage (such as it is): Buckeyes.

11. Ferocity.

Author Ernest Thompson Seton called the wolverine “a tremendous character … a personality of unmeasured force, courage and achievement … enveloped in a mist of legend, superstition, idolatry, fear and hatred.” He compared it to a weasel -- a “scrap of demoniac fury” with “tireless, incredible activity” -- multiplied by fifty. However, the previously mentioned U.S. Fish and Wildlife newsletter article (pdf) notes that wolverines “do not try to compete directly with … much larger predators -- in fact, wolverines are primarily scavengers.”

Of the buckeye, novelist and Ohio native Scott Russell Sanders writes, “Which is the deeper truth about buckeyes, their poison or their beauty? I hold with the beauty; or rather, I am held by the beauty, without forgetting the poison.” Truly lovely writing. But …

Advantage: Wolverines.


The Stinking Buckeyes or the Stink-bears? A "horrid, skunk-like odor" vs. "secretions from anal scent glands"? Sounds like a tossup. Hopefully not of one’s cookies.

(Publisher’s note: OK, yeah, we're going with the Buckeyes.)

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Kurt Knebusch