Thursday, April 30, 2009

My favorite Wolverine!

Okay, I got you. I much prefer the real, live, fauna version of wolverine than the X-Men version.

The cartoon Wolverine thrives while the real wolverine has a much more tenuous existence. The wolverine was never common throughout Minnesota but it thrives in the Boundary Water Canoe areas in the same habitat as wolves. Our Dad, Gary Woodward, would take us out looking for footprints of animals. We went on hikes in the hills of Duluth where Dad convinced me I saw "fox poop" (probably just dog poop). We went on short hikes at our cabin where we looked for porcupine quills, tracks and feathers - that's where I got my Native American name from Dad - "Laughing Moccasin". As I recall, these Wolverine tracks look similar to porcupine tracks so we could have been tracking far more dangerous critters than we knew. (Not really, but my Dad would have got a kick out of it!)

The wolverine is the largest land-dwelling species of the Mustelidae or weasel family. (The Giant Otter is the largest overall.) The wolverine is in the genus Gulo (meaning glutton). It is also called the Carcajou.

Anatomically, the wolverine is a stocky and muscular animal. It has brown fur with stripes of dull yellow along the sides. Its fur is long and dense and does not retain much water, making it very resistant to frost, which is common in the wolverine's cold habitat. (For these reasons, the fur has been traditionally popular among hunters and trappers as a lining in jackets and parkas, especially for wear in Arctic conditions). The adult wolverine is about the size of a medium dog, with a length usually ranging from 65 – 87 cm (25 – 34 inches), a tail of 17 – 26 cm (7 – 10 inches), and a weight of 10-25 kg (22 – 55 lb), although exceptionally large males can weigh over 31 kg (70 lb). The males are as much as 30 percent larger than the females. In appearance, the wolverine resembles a small bear with a long tail. It has been known to give off a very strong, extremely unpleasant odor, giving rise to the nicknames "skunk bear" and "nasty cat." Wolverines, as other mustelids, possess a special upper molar.

The wolverine is, like most mustelids, remarkably strong for its size. It has been known to kill prey as large as moose, although most typically when these are weakened by winter starvation or caught in deep snow. Wolverines inhabiting the northern forrests of Europe & Asia, are more active hunters than their North American cousins. This may be because competing prey/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 that changes in the population of wolves may affect the population of wolverines. Wolverines are also known on occasion to eat plant material.

Armed with powerful jaws, sharp claws, and a thick hide, wolverines may defend kills against larger or more numerous predators. There is at least one published account of a 27-pound wolverine's attempt to steal a kill from a black bear (adult males weigh 400 to 500 pounds). Unfortunately for the mustelid, the bear won what was ultimately a fatal contest. Wolverines have been known to harass and attempt to intimidate wolves and cougars.

Mating season is in the summer, but the actual implantation of the embryo (blastocyst) in the uterus is saved/stayed until early winter, delaying the development of the fetus. Females will often not produce young if food is scarce. The wolverine gestation period is 30-50 days. Litters of typically two or three young ("kits") are born in the spring. Kits develop rapidly, reaching adult size within the first year of a lifespan that may reach anywhere from five to (in exceptional individuals) thirteen years.

Adult wolverines have no natural predators, though they do come into conflict with (and may be killed by) other large predators over territory and food. Juveniles are more vulnerable; infants (kits) have been known on occasion to be taken by predatory birds such as eagles.

The wolverine lives primarily in isolated northern areas, for example the artic and alpine regions of Alaska, northern Canada, Siberia and Scandinavia; they are also native to Russia, the Baltic countries, and Northern China and Mongolia. In 2008 and 2009, wolverines were sighted as far south as the Sierra Nevada, near Lake Tahoe, for the first time since 1922. It is also found in low numbers in the Rocky Mountains and northern Cascades of the United States. However, most wolverines live in Canada.

The world's total wolverine population is unknown. The animal exhibits a low population density and requires a very large home range. The range of a male wolverine can be more than 620 km or 240 sq mi while encompassing the ranges of several females (with smaller home ranges of roughly 130-260 km² (50-100 sq mi). Adult wolverines try for the most part to keep non-overlapping ranges with adults of the same sex. Radio tracking suggests an animal can range hundreds of miles in only a few months.

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. They are currently in Near Threatened status but their population could be in worse condition than anticipated due to the large ranges required to support them and known human encroachment.

I hope I never run into one of you - especially a big, hungry male Wolverine at a deserted camp site in the Boundary Waters. Yet, I am more than thrilled to share the planet with Wolverines. I am praying/hoping for a big population rebound as we all work together to live in a green earth. Dad would want it this way too.

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