Wolverine

(Gulo gulo)

Photo by William F. Wood

The wolverine, also referred to as the glutton, carcajou, quickhatch, or skunk bear (despite being neither skunk nor bear), is the largest land-dwelling species of the family Mustelidae. Due to their elusive nature, they are one of the world’s least studied mammals.

Appearance

A mustelid with a robust yet athletic build, with relatively short neck, powerful shoulders and stocky body to help them preserve heat in cold climates. Legs are among the longest in relation to the overall proportions, equipped with paws that are the broadest of all mustelids to function as snowshoes. The tail is relatively short and bushy.

They have highly hydrophobic fur that is a thick, glossy, brown to brownish-black, with a yellow or gold stripe extending from the crown of the head laterally across each shoulder and to the rump, where the stripes join at the tail. A light silvery facial mask and white hair patch on the throat and or chest is distinct in some individuals.(1)

Habitat

The wolverine is primarily found in the remote forest habitats and open plains of the Northern Hemisphere.

Behaviour

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Reproduction

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Diet

Wolverines are versatile, opportunistic predators, and will prey upon almost any small to mid-sized mammal.(2) They often pursue live prey caught in traps, newborn mammals, and animals weakened by winter or immobilized by heavy snow. However, wolverines are thought to be primarily opportunistic scavengers—feeding on dead animals that have died of starvation or disease, or were killed by another animal.(3) They will also occasionally enter occupied camps overnight to steal freshly hunted meat, or break into unoccupied cabins to steal anything edible. Despite these raids, they are not known to randomly attack humans.(4) In some areas wolverines will consume ground nesting birds, insect larvae, berries, and even fish.(5) Wolverines are known to cache food during lean times. This allows lactating females to have easy access to stored food during late winter and early spring; a time when food is scarce.(6)

The wolverine’s dubious reputation as an overeater is reflected in their Latin genus name Gulo, which translates to “glutton”. However, despite popular belief, this name is an unwarranted misnomer, given wolverines eat what they need to survive, and therefore do not fit the true definition of a glutton. Gluttony (or simply overeating) usually refers to consuming more food than a body uses for energy. If the wolverine actually did this on a daily bases it would likely lead to several health consequences; hindering their ability to survive in the wild.

Predators

Wolverines are robust, aggressive animals, but they are not invincible. Young or inexperienced wolverines can fall prey to wolves, mountain lions, black bears, brown bears, and golden eagles, with the grey wolf in particular being considered the greatest threat to adults.(7)(8)(9)(10)

Habitat loss

Due to the increase of property development and recreational lands, wolverines are coming into conflict with humans more frequently. Hunting and trapping of wolverines have reduced their numbers, causing them to disappear from large parts of their former range.(11) Given their dependence on long-term snow cover, climate change is also predicted to threaten their way of life.(4)(6)

Sensationalism in media

Despite being primarily an opportunistic scavenger, the wolverine has been branded a “vicious killing machine”, “vengeful”, and even superstitiously, “devilish”. They are one of the world’s largest, least studied omnivores, and have maintained a strongly negative reputation amongst the public. The common notion that they are simply bad-tempered, bloodthirsty gluttons is an overblown, sensationalistic myth. Their ferocity is an instinctual drive for survival, not an inherent “nastiness”. Although inadvertently, there’s a tendency for those who admire wolverines to also perpetuate this harmful stereotype, which often detracts from the animal’s other traits and vulnerabilities. Most encounters with wolverines have occurred while they’re stuck in man-made traps, and it’s only natural to observe them behaving very aggressively in this situation. Like most wild animals, wolverines are not instigators and try to avoid trouble.

Range map

Body length: 65–107 cm / 26–42 in (males), 63–89 cm / 25–35 in (females)
Tail length: 17–26 cm / 6.7–10.2 in (males)
Weight: 9–32 kg / 22–71 lb (males), 8–12 kg / 18–26 lb (females)
Lifespan: Up to 13 years (wild), up to 17 years (captivity)
Range: The Northern boreal forests, subarctic and alpine tundra of the Northern Hemisphere.
Conservation status: Least concern
Recognised subspecies(12)

  1. G. g. luscus — American wolverine
  2. G. g. gulo — Eurasian wolverine
References
  1. Landa, Arild, Mats Lindén, and Ilpo Kojola. Action plan for the conservation of wolverines in Europe (Gulo gulo). No. 18-115. Council of Europe, 2000.
  2. Heptner, Vladimir G., ed. Mammals of the Soviet Union, Volume 2 Part 2 Carnivora (Hyenas and Cats). Vol. 2. Brill, 1989.
  3. Van Dijk, Jiska, et al. “Diet shift of a facultative scavenger, the wolverine, following recolonization of wolves.” Journal of Animal Ecology 77.6 (2008): 1183-1190.
  4. Bonamy, Morgane, Thora Martina Herrmann, and Andrew Blair Harbicht. “‘I think it is the toughest animal in the North’: human-wolverine interactions among hunters and trappers in the Canadian Northwest Territories.Polar Geography 43.1 (2020). p. 3.
  5. Beauvais, Gary P., and Lain Johnson. Species assessment for wolverine (Gulo gulo) in Wyoming. US Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Cheyenne, Wyoming (2004). p. 20. Accessed 03 December 2020.
  6. Parry, Wynne. Live Science. (2012). “Climate change could melt wolverines’ snowy refrigerators“. Accessed 01 December 2020.
  7. Burkholder, Bob L. “Observations concerning wolverine.” Journal of Mammalogy 43.2 (1962): 263-264.
  8. White, K. S., Golden, H. N., Hundertmark, K. J., & Lee, G. R. (2002). Predation by Wolves, Canis lupus, on Wolverines, Gulo gulo, and an American Marten, Martes americana, in Alaska. Canadian Field-Naturalist, 116(1), 132–134.
  9. Patsy, V. and M. Sygo 2009. Gulo gulo (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed November 22, 2020.
  10.  “White River National Forest (N.F.), Land and Resource Management Plan: Environmental Impact Statement”. 2002.
  11. Glenn Hurowitz (2008-03-05). “First wolverine in 30 years spotted in California
  12. Copeland, J.P. and J.S. Whitman. 2003. Wolverine (Gulo gulo). Pages 672-682 in Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management, and Economics. G.A. Feldhamer, B.C. Thompson, and J.A. Chapman, editors. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore, Maryland USA.

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