American wolverine (G. g. luscus)
Mustela gulo Linnaeus, 1758
The wolverine (//) (also spelled wolverene), Gulo gulo (Gulo is Latin for "glutton"), also referred to as the glutton, carcajou, skunk bear, or quickhatch (from East Cree, kwiihkwahaacheew), is the largest land-dwelling species of the family Mustelidae. It is a stocky and muscular carnivore, more closely resembling a small bear than other mustelids. A solitary animal, it has a reputation for ferocity and strength out of proportion to its size, with the documented ability to kill prey many times larger than itself.
The wolverine is found primarily in remote reaches of the Northern boreal forests and subarctic and alpine tundra of the Northern Hemisphere, with the greatest numbers in Northern Canada, the U.S. state of Alaska, the mainland Nordic countries of Europe, and throughout western Russia and Siberia. Its population has steadily declined since the 19th century owing to trapping, range reduction and habitat fragmentation. The wolverine is now essentially absent from the southern end of its European range.
Within the Gulo gulo species, a clear separation occurs between two subspecies: the Old World form Gulo gulo gulo and the New World form G. g. luscus. Some authors had described as many as four additional North American subspecies, including ones limited to Vancouver Island (G. g. vancouverensis) and the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska (G. g. katschemakensis). However, the most currently accepted taxonomy recognizes either the two continental subspecies or G. gulo as a single Holarctic taxon.
Recently compiled genetic evidence suggests most of North America's wolverines are descended from a single source, likely originating from Beringia during the last glaciation and rapidly expanding thereafter, though considerable uncertainty to this conclusion is due to the difficulty of collecting samples in the extremely depleted southern extent of the range.
Anatomically, the wolverine is a stocky and muscular animal. With short legs, broad and rounded head, small eyes and short rounded ears, it more closely resembles a bear than it does other mustelids. Though its legs are short, its large, five-toed paws with crampon-like claws and plantigrade posture enable them to climb up and over steep cliffs, trees and snow-covered peaks with relative ease.
The adult wolverine is about the size of a medium dog, with a length usually ranging from 65–107 cm (26–42 in), a tail of 17–26 cm (6 1⁄2–10 in), and a weight of 5.5–25 kg (12–55 lb), though exceptionally large males can weigh up to 32 kg (71 lb). One outsized specimen was reported to scale approximately 35 kg (77 lb). The males are as much as 30% larger than the females and can be twice the females' weight. According to some sources, Eurasian wolverines are claimed to be larger and heavier than North American with average weights in excess of 20 kg (44 lb) but this may refer more specifically to areas such as Siberia, as data from European wolverines shows they are typically around the same size as their American counterparts. The average weight of female wolverines from a study in the Northwest Territories of Canada was 10.1 kg (22 lb 4 oz) and that of males 15.3 kg (33 lb 12 oz). In a study from Alaska, the median weight of ten males was 16.7 kg (36 lb 13 oz) while the average of two females was 9.6 kg (21 lb 3 oz). In Ontario, the mean weight of males and females was 13.6 kg (30 lb 0 oz) and 9.9 kg (21 lb 13 oz). The average weights of wolverines were notably lower in a study from the Yukon, averaging 7.3 kg (16 lb 1 oz) in females and 11.3 kg (24 lb 15 oz) in males, perhaps because these animals from a "harvest population" had low fat deposits. In Finland, the average weight was claimed as 11 to 12.6 kg (24 lb 4 oz to 27 lb 12 oz). The average weight of male and female wolverines from Norway was listed as 14.6 kg (32 lb 3 oz) and 10 kg (22 lb). Shoulder height is reported from 30 to 45 cm (12 to 18 in). It is the largest of terrestrial mustelids; only the marine-dwelling sea otter, the giant otter of the Amazon basin and the semi-aquatic African clawless otter are larger, while the European badger may reach a similar body mass, especially in autumn.
Wolverines have thick, dark, oily fur which is highly hydrophobic, making it resistant to frost. This has led to its traditional popularity among hunters and trappers as a lining in jackets and parkas in Arctic conditions. A light-silvery facial mask is distinct in some individuals, and a pale buff stripe runs laterally from the shoulders along the side and crossing the rump just above a 25–35 cm (10–14 in) bushy tail. Some individuals display prominent white hair patches on their throats or chests.
Like many other mustelids, it has potent anal scent glands used for marking territory and sexual signaling. The pungent odor has given rise to the nicknames "skunk bear" and "nasty cat." Wolverines, like other mustelids, possess a special upper molar in the back of the mouth that is rotated 90 degrees, towards the inside of the mouth. This special characteristic allows wolverines to tear off meat from prey or carrion that has been frozen solid.
Diet and hunting
Wolverines are considered to be primarily scavengers. A majority of the wolverine's sustenance is derived from carrion, on which it depends almost exclusively in winter and early spring. Wolverines may find carrion themselves, feed on it after the predator (often, a pack of wolves) has finished, or simply take it from another predator. Wolverines are also known to follow wolf and lynx trails, purportedly with the intent of scavenging the remains of their kills. Whether eating live prey or carrion, the wolverine's feeding style appears voracious, leading to the nickname of "glutton" (also the basis of the scientific name). However, this feeding style is believed to be an adaptation to food scarcity, especially in winter.
The wolverine is also a powerful and versatile predator. Prey mainly consists of small to medium-sized mammals, but the wolverine has been recorded killing prey such as adult deer that are many times larger than itself. Prey species include porcupines, squirrels, chipmunks, beavers, marmots, moles, gophers, rabbits, voles, mice, rats, shrews, lemmings, caribou, roe deer, white-tailed deer, mule deer, sheep, goats, cattle, bison, moose, and elk. Smaller predators are occasionally preyed on, including martens, mink, foxes, Eurasian lynx, weasels, and coyote and wolf pups. Wolverines have also been known to kill Canadian lynx in the Yukon of Canada. Wolverines often pursue live prey that are relatively easy to obtain, including animals caught in traps, newborn mammals, and deer (including adult moose and elk) when they are weakened by winter or immobilized by heavy snow. Their diets are sometimes supplemented by birds' eggs, birds (especially geese), roots, seeds, insect larvae, and berries.
Wolverines inhabiting the Old World (specifically, Fennoscandia) hunt more actively than their North American relatives. This may be because competing predator populations in Eurasia are not as dense, making it more practical for the wolverine to hunt for itself than to wait for another animal to make a kill and then try to snatch it. They often feed on carrion left by wolves, so changes in wolf populations may affect the population of wolverines. They are also known on occasion to eat plant material.
Wolves are thought to be the wolverine's most important natural predator, with the arrival of wolves to a wolverine's territory presumably leading the latter to abandon the area. Armed with powerful jaws, sharp claws, and a thick hide, wolverines, like most mustelids, are remarkably strong for their size. They may defend against larger or more numerous predators such as wolves or bears. By far, their most serious predator is the grey wolf, with an extensive record of wolverine fatalities attributed to wolves in both North America and Eurasia. In North America, another predator (less frequent) is the cougar. At least one account reported a wolverine's apparent attempt to steal a kill from a black bear, although the bear won what was ultimately a fatal contest for the wolverine. There are a few accounts of brown bears killing and consuming wolverines as well and, although also reported at times to be chased off prey, in some areas such as Denali National Park, wolverines seemed to try to actively avoid encounters with grizzly bears as they have been reported in areas where wolves start hunting them. In another account, a wolverine was claimed to have killed an adult polar bear but this account may be dubious.
Mating and reproduction
Successful males will form lifetime relationships with two or three females, which they will visit occasionally, while other males are left without a mate. Mating season is in the summer, but the actual implantation of the embryo (blastocyst) in the uterus is stayed until early winter, delaying the development of the fetus. Females will often not produce young if food is scarce. The gestation period is 30–50 days, and litters of typically two or three young ("kits") are born in the spring. Kits develop rapidly, reaching adult size within the first year. The typical longevity of a wolverine in captivity is around 15 to 17 years, but in the wild the average lifespan is more likely between 8 and 10 years. Fathers make visits to their offspring until they are weaned at 10 weeks of age; also, once the young are about six months old, some reconnect with their fathers and travel together for a time.
Wolverines live primarily in isolated arctic, boreal, and alpine regions of northern Canada, Alaska, Siberia, and Fennoscandia; they are also native to European Russia, the Baltic countries, the Russian Far East, northeast China and Mongolia. In the Sierra Nevada, wolverines were sighted near Winnemucca Lake in spring 1995 and at Toe Jam Lake north of the Yosemite border in 1996; and later photographed by baited cameras, including in 2008 and 2009, near Lake Tahoe. According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service publication, as of 2014 "wolverines are found in the North Cascades in Washington and the Northern Rocky Mountains in Idaho, Montana, Oregon (Wallowa Range), and Wyoming. Individual wolverines have also moved into historic range in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California and the Southern Rocky Mountains of Colorado, but have not established breeding populations in these areas."
In August of 2020, the National Park Service reported that wolverines had been sighted at Mount Rainier, Washington for the first time in more than a century. The sighting was of a reproductive female and her two offspring.
In 2004, the first confirmed sighting of a wolverine in Michigan since the early 19th century took place, when a Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist photographed a wolverine in Ubly, Michigan. The specimen was found dead at the Minden City State Game Area in Sanilac County, Michigan in 2010; no further wolverines have been spotted in Michigan.
The world's total wolverine population is not known. The animal exhibits a low population density and requires a very large home range. The wolverine is listed by the IUCN as Least Concern because of its "wide distribution, remaining large populations, and the unlikelihood that it is in decline at a rate fast enough to trigger even Near Threatened".
The range of a male wolverine can be more than 620 km2 (240 mi2), encompassing the ranges of several females which have smaller home ranges of roughly 130–260 km2 (50–100 mi2). Adult wolverines try for the most part to keep nonoverlapping ranges with adults of the same sex. Radio tracking suggests an animal can range hundreds of miles in a few months.
Female wolverines burrow into snow in February to create a den, which is used until weaning in mid-May. Areas inhabited nonseasonally by wolverines are thus restricted to zones with late-spring snowmelts. This fact has led to concern that global warming will shrink the ranges of wolverine populations.
This requirement for large territories brings wolverines into conflict with human development, and hunting and trapping further reduce their numbers, causing them to disappear from large parts of their former range; attempts to have them declared an endangered species have met with little success. In February 2013, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service proposed giving Endangered Species Act protections to the wolverine due to its winter habitat in the northern Rockies diminishing. This was as a result of a lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife.
The Wildlife Conservation Society reported in June 2009 that a wolverine researchers had been tracking for almost three months had crossed into northern Colorado. Society officials had tagged the young male wolverine in Wyoming near Grand Teton National Park, and it had traveled southward for about 500 miles (800 km). It was the first wolverine seen in Colorado since 1919, and its appearance was also confirmed by the Colorado Division of Wildlife. In May 2016 the same wolverine was killed by a cattle ranch-hand in North Dakota, ending a greater-than-800-mile (1287 km) trip by this lone male wolverine, dubbed M-56. This was the first verified sighting of a Wolverine in North Dakota in 150 years. In February 2014, a wolverine was seen in Utah, the first confirmed sighting in that state in 30 years.
|Country||Population in surveyed area||Surveyed area||Year||State of population|
|Norway||150+||Snøhetta plateau and North||1995–97||Decline|
|Norway and Sweden – overall||1065||Overall||2012||Increase|
|Finland||155–170||Karelia and North||2008||Stable|
|Finland – overall||165–175||Overall||2012||Increase|
|Russia||1500||European Russia||1970, 1990,||Decline|
|Russia – Komi||885||–||1990||–|
|Russia – Archangelsk Oblast||410||Nenetsky Autonomous Area||1990||Limited|
|Russia – Kola Peninsula||160||Hunting Districts||1990||Decline|
|United States – Alaska||Unknown||Kobuk Valley National Park, Selawik National Wildlife Refuge||1998||Decline|
|United States – Alaska||3.0 (± 0.4 SE) wolverines/1,000 km2||Turnagain Arm and the Kenai Mountains||2004||–|
|United States – Rocky Mountains||28–52||Montana, Idaho, Wyoming||1989–2007||Unknown|
|United States – California||3||Tahoe National Forest||2008||Unknown|
|Canada – Yukon||9.7 (± 0.6 SE) wolverines/1,000 km2||Old Crow Flats||2004||–|
|Canada – Ontario||Unclear||Red Lake – Sioux Lookout to Fort Severn – Peawanuck||2004||Stable to expanding|
|Canada – overall||15,000–19,000||Overall||–||Stable|
Around a hundred wolverines are held in zoos across North America and Europe, and they have been bred in captivity, but only with difficulty and high infant mortality.
The wolverine's questionable reputation as an insatiable glutton (reflected in the Latin genus name Gulo) may be in part due to a false etymology. The less common name for the animal in Norwegian, fjellfross, meaning "mountain cat", is thought to have worked its way into German as Vielfraß, which means "glutton" (literally "devours much"). Its name in other West Germanic languages is similar (e.g. Dutch: veelvraat).
The Finnish name is ahma, derived from ahmatti, which is translated as "glutton". Similarly, the Estonian name is ahm, with the equivalent meaning to the Finnish name. In Lithuanian is ernis, in Latvian—tinis or āmrija.
The Eastern Slavic росомаха (rosomakha) and the Polish and Czech name rosomák seem to be borrowed from the Finnish rasva-maha (fat belly). Similarly, the Hungarian name is rozsomák or torkosborz which means "gluttonous badger".
In French-speaking parts of Canada, the wolverine is referred to as carcajou, borrowed from the Innu-aimun or Montagnais kuàkuàtsheu. However, in France, the wolverine's name is glouton (glutton).
Purported gluttony is reflected neither in the English name wolverine nor in the names used in North Germanic languages. The English word wolverine (alteration of the earlier form, wolvering, of uncertain origin) probably implies "a little wolf". The name in Proto-Norse, erafaz and Old Norse, jarfr, lives on in the regular Icelandic name jarfi, regular Norwegian name jerv, regular Swedish name järv and regular Danish name jærv.
Many North American cities, teams, and organizations use the wolverine as a mascot. For example, the US state of Michigan is, by tradition, known as "the Wolverine State", and the University of Michigan takes the animal as its mascot. There have also been professional baseball and football clubs called the "Wolverines". The association is well and long established: for example, many Detroiters volunteered to fight during the American Civil War and George Armstrong Custer, who led the Michigan Brigade, called them the "Wolverines". The origins of this association are obscure; it may derive from a busy trade in wolverine furs in Sault Ste. Marie in the 18th century or may recall a disparagement intended to compare early settlers in Michigan with the vicious mammal. Wolverines are, however, extremely rare in Michigan. A sighting in February 2004 near Ubly was the first confirmed sighting in Michigan in 200 years. The animal was found dead in 2010.
The wolverine is prevalent in stories and oral history from various Algonquian tribes and figures prominently in the mythology of the Innu people of eastern Quebec and Labrador. The wolverine is known as Kuekuatsheu, a conniving trickster who created the world. The story of the formation of the Innu world begins long ago when Kuekuatsheu built a big boat similar to Noah's Ark and put all the various animal species in it. There was a great deal of rain, and the land was flooded. He told the mink to dive into the water to retrieve some mud and rocks which he mixed together to create an island, which is the world that we presently inhabit along with all the animals. Many tales of Kuekuatsheu are often humorous and irreverent and include crude references to bodily functions. Some Northeastern tribes, such as the Miꞌkmaq and Passamaquoddy, refer to the wolverine as Lox, who usually appears in tales as a trickster and thief (although generally more dangerous than its Innu counterpart) and is often depicted as a companion to the wolf. Similarly, the Dené, a group of the Athabaskan-speaking natives of northwestern Canada, have many stories of the wolverine as a trickster and cultural transformer much like the coyote in the Navajo tradition or raven in Northwest Coast traditions.
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