The wolverine, also referred to as the glutton, carcajou, quickhatch, skunk bear (despite being neither skunk nor bear), and many other nicknames, is the largest land-dwelling mustelid found throughout the far Northern Hemisphere. There is a common impression that the wolverine’s sinewy physique makes them the largest mustelid overall. However, this title (depending on which metric one prefers) belongs to either the giant otter (the longest), or the sea otter (the heaviest).
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)
The wolverine is primarily found in the remote forest habitats and open plains of the Northern Hemisphere.
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(3)—feeding on dead animals (carrion) that have died of starvation or disease, or were killed by another animal. 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 reputation as a supposed habitual overeater is reflected in their Latin genus name Gulo, which translates to “glutton”. However, despite popular belief, this name is an unwarranted, anthropomorphic misnomer, given that a wolverine eats what it needs to survive in their harsh environment, and for this reason does not fit the definition of a glutton.
Predators and threats
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.(2)(7)(8)(9)
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.(10) Given the wolverine’s dependence on long-term snow cover, conservationists are also concerned that climate change will 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 wolverines are simply bad-tempered, bloodthirsty gluttons with a grudge against every living creature is an anthropomorphic, sensationalistic myth. Their ferocity is an instinctual drive for survival, not an inherent “nastiness”. Unfortunately, even though there is still much for us to learn about the wolverine’s nature, many continue perpetuate this stereotype, which inadvertently further detracts attention from the animal’s vulnerabilities and true behavioural traits.
Wolverines are indeed aggressive and robust animals; we are not denying that. However, they should not be solely defined by these characteristics, since aggression and strength are not exactly unique among many animals in the Carnivora order. Few also take into consideration that most encounters with wolverines have occurred while they are stuck in man-made traps, or other stress-inducing situations, and that it is natural to observe them behaving extremely aggressively in such predicaments. At the end of the day, like most wild animals with good survival instincts, wolverines are not instigators and try to avoid trouble.
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
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
- American wolverine – (G. g. luscus)
- Eurasian wolverine – (G. g. gulo)
- Landa, Arild; Lindén, Mats & Kojola, Ilpo (2000). “Action Plan for the conservation of Wolverines (Gulo gulo) in Europe” (PDF). Nature and environment, No. 115. Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern Convention). Archived (PDF) from the original on 29 April 2015. Accessed 22 February 2021.
- Patsy, V. and M. Sygo 2009. “Gulo gulo“ (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed November 22, 2020.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Parry, Wynne. Live Science. (2012). “Climate change could melt wolverines’ snowy refrigerators“. Accessed 01 December 2020.
- Burkholder, Bob L. “Observations concerning wolverine.” Journal of Mammalogy 43.2 (1962): 263-264.
- 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.
- “White River National Forest (N.F.), Land and Resource Management Plan: Environmental Impact Statement”. 2002.
- Glenn Hurowitz (2008-03-05). “First wolverine in 30 years spotted in California“
- 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.