Wolverine, Gulo gulo

Wolverine, Gulo gulo

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Russell Stebbings, Senior Museum Technician, writes:

Some people yearn to travel to northern latitudes to catch sight of the Aurora Borealis, herds of reindeer or even a wild polar bear. I would travel in hope of seeing my choice of animal, which inhabits the boreal forests which girdle the southern reaches of the arctic tundra. Its range extends from Alaska, across Canada, the northern U.S. and Scandinavia to the Taiga forests of Siberia.

The Wolverine (Gulo gulo) is a carnivore of the family Mustelidae, which also includes weasels, badgers and otters. It is the largest land-dwelling member of the family, and somewhat resembles a small bear, with a blunter, rounder face than a European badger. Its fur is thick, fine and brown, sometimes with a blonde saddle-margin around the sides. They have strong, clawed paws, which are large enough to allow them to travel easily over soft snow even though they may weigh up to around 20 kilograms. They are solitary and have a large home range. For males this may be of more than 600 square kilometres, typically with a male territory overlapping that of several females.

Their young are born in Natal Dens, which are built into banks of snow. The changing climate is driving the population further northwards as available sites to the south become less dependable.

Wolverine will also attack and fight bears and wolves, sometimes severely mauling the latter, whilst attempting to drive them off a kill. They seem fearless in this pursuit, attacking larger and more numerous opponents with dogged determination. They also hunt for themselves and sometimes cache their kills against leaner times, storing carcases and dismembered limbs in trees, which they can climb with ease.

Wolverines have several enemies, including both black and brown bear, polar bear, wolves and man. Traditionally their fur has been used in clothing, including to line the edges of the hoods of parkas, as it is both resistant to freezing up and can be easily cleaned of ice. Wolverines are also a menace to trap lines as they are voracious scavengers, attacking animals much larger than themselves that may be caught in a snare or gin trap. Trappers therefore have another reason to persecute them. Furthermore, other humans in conflict with the Wolverine include those dependent upon herds of reindeer, as in Scandinavia or Russia, upon which the Wolverine may prey.

They are inquisitive and energetic, constantly roaming their vast territories. They are capable of jogging or running up to 30 kilometres per day and can do this repeatedly. They can be playful, enjoying sliding and skiing in snow and on icy surfaces.

In choosing to focus on the Wolverine, I was struck by the skeleton on display in the Museum, which appears unassuming, even slight and fragile by comparison with the fearsome character and toughness of the living animal.

There are Wolverines in captivity and whilst I would dearly love to see one in the flesh, I shall wait until I can travel to see them in the snow-bound forests of the North.

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