57: Wolverines

The animal spotlight this week is the wolverine! Though known best because of its namesake played by Hugh Jackman in Marvel Movies, this animal has quite the superpowers of it’s own without Hollywood’s help. A smallish brown fluffy creature, perhaps quite cuddly in appearance, these animals are powerful predators with some practical but potentially grisly habits. We will be exploring their lifestyle, their hunting, and some of the traditional stories they have inspired before they hit comic book fame. Enjoy!

A wolverine in Sweden. They look very cute but are most certainly predators. (Picture: Jonathan Othén)

Life history

Wolverines are a circumpolar animal, found across northern America, Europe and Russia, though they aren’t found in Greenland. They look a bit like little bears, but wolverines are close relatives of martens in Europe and a similar species tayras in North America. They measure around 80-110 cm including their bushy tail, and weigh anywhere from 9-30 kg, similar to a rather stocky medium sized dog.

They mate for life, yet are solitary animals, so a male will only briefly visit his two or three females now and then. Wolverines mate in summer, yet the females don’t actually start developing the fetus in the uterus for many months. This allows them to time their gestation so that they give birth in good conditions, wolverines only being pregnant for around 30-50 days. If food is very scarce it also gives them the option of not carrying the young and avoiding the pregnancy. Kits, baby wolverines, are born in spring, and are visited by their father until they leave home at around 6 months old. Some go off into the world on their own, whilst others spend a brief period travelling with their fathers.

Wolverines live for around 7-12 years in the wild (15-17 in captivity). They live in the northern forests and in the more open tundra, and tend to have quite large territories, travelling up to 25 km a day to find food. They are well adapted to the winter environment with a warm coat and a stocky build to conserve heat. They also have big claws which act as crampons, helping them to walk over snow and ice.

A mother wolverine carrying her kit. Wolverines are incredibly secretive and hard for humans to see. This image comes from one of the only videos existing of wolverine kits in the wild. (Picture: Andrew Manske)

Ferocity and food

Wolverines have quite the ferocious reputation, and it’s not for nothing. They have a varied diet, eating some berries and plants, and scavenging on any prey left around by other predators. They have even been known to follow some predators like lynx, waiting for them to leave around scraps. They even have a specially adapted tooth in their mouth which is rotated 90 degrees, that helps them to tear through frozen meat that may have been lying around in the snow for a while.

However, whilst being skilful scavengers, wolverines are very able to hunt themselves too. Often this is small things like rabbits, squirrels and lemmings, maybe some birds like ptarmigans too. Despite their small size they have also been seen to hunt things far bigger than themselves. This includes things like reindeer/caribou, cows and even moose. They don’t restrict themselves to classic prey species either. They have been seen to hunt wolf pups, and in parts of Canada even adult lynx! These incredible hunting feats are done thanks to their powerful jaw strength, sharp long claws and surprising speed.

The scientific name of the wolverine, Gulo gulo, comes from the Latin word for ‘glutton’ due to the incredible size of some of its prey. As the wolverine cannot eat, e.g. an entire moose, in one sitting their often cache their food, hiding it away until they need it. They also have some reported grisly food storage habits. According to reindeer herders in Northern Europe, wolverines can sometimes attack reindeer, slicing through their leg muscles so they cannot run away. They do this to a few, leaving them alive, and come back to pick them off one by one when they are hungry to ensure the meat is fresh. So they looks cute, but their habits are less so…

Wolverines do have predators of their own. Adult wolves, especially the grey wolf are known to kill wolverines. Bears are also one of their natural enemies. Wolverines can sometimes defend themselves from wolves and bears, but are often killed by them too. Another predator is of course humans. The thick, oily fur of wolverines is warm and resistant to frost making it ideal for making cold weather clothing, especially for hunters who spend a lot of time outdoors. This makes it a lucrative creature for fur trappers to catch. Wolverines have also made some enemies because of their hungry nature. In some areas they are shot to protect livestock from being hunted.

Despite the massive size difference, wolverines have been known to take down older or ill moose

Stories

Wolverines have left their mark in cultural history too. Amongst some of the Innu in Canada the wolverine is a sneaky trickster who helped create the world. The story goes that a wolverine known as Kuekuatsheu built a big boat and filled it with all the different animals. There was a big flood, and the Kuekuatsheu told some mink to jump into the water and get some mud and rocks. This he used to make an island which is the world we now live on. In this story he is not a trickster, but in many other he is characterised by greed, being tricky but also being foolish and caught out by others tricks. He is not so much malevolent as thoughtless and without a moral compass.

In more southern Canadian indigenous cultures, such as the Mi’kmaq, the wolverine is known as Lox, and is more dangerous and thieving than in the stories of the Innu.

In one tale, Lox comes across a bear but does not think he is strong enough to fight him. As they stood together a white bird flew over them. Lox said to the bear

“Look how proud that bird is, but he is only proud because I made him white”.

Then he looked at the bear and said “I can make you white too if you want”. The bear thought for a moment and decided that he too wanted to be white.

Lox built a strong hut with a strong roof, within which he dug a hole and filled it with stones. On the stones he made a fire, making them very hot. Then Lox told the bear to go in, and through a small hole in the roof poured some water on the rocks. However, it got very hot and the bear asked to be let out. Lox let him out and sighed.

“What a shame, you had just started to get white! Look at the white spots on your chest”

The bear agreed to go back in, but this time Lox locked the door. He pour more water onto the stones and when the bear asked to be let out he didn’t let him. After a while no noise came from the hut, and when Lox opened the door, the bear was dead. He had beaten the bear after all.

Traditional stories show the wolverine as being a trickster, whilst in others it is downright dangerous. (Picture: wildanimalia)

Wolverines are strong, gutsy and sometime ferocious creatures. They have built themselves a reputation, which flows into traditional stories of tricking and thieving. At the same time, they are loyal mates, intrepid travellers, and in a world of guns, wolves and scarce food they are survivors.

For more info:

Some more Lox stories:

How Master Lox Froze to Death

How Lox told a Lie

The Merry Tales of Lox, The Mischief Maker

A scavenging wolverine or two

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