WolverinesBy Anne Cissel
These cold-climate creatures are true survivors. But a warming planet may put them at risk.
THE SUPERHERO WOLVERINE in the X-Men movies fights bad guys with sharp claws, a muscular body, and a ferocious attitude. The REAL wolverine has all that and more, making it one of the toughest mammals in the world.
See those big paws? They are like built-in snowshoes that help the wolverine walk on top of the snow. And that thick fur protects it from extremely cold temperatures. You can glimpse some of its teeth here, too—but more on those later! Keep reading to find out about other wolverine superpowers.
STRONG AND FAST
Wolverines live in some of the coldest places on Earth, such as northern Canada and Alaska. They are the largest land-based members of the weasel family, which also includes otters and badgers.
A wolverine is as big as a medium-sized dog but is much stronger than the average pooch. Take a look at its powerful body. Its shoulders, neck, and jaws are super-strong. Its legs are built for long-distance travel: A wolverine has been known to trek more than 50 miles a day, and its territory can be more than 1,200 square miles (two-thirds the size of Rhode Island).
Wolverine babies (kits) arrive in winter. Before her kits are born, a mother must find or build a den to protect them. Cold temperatures are always a threat, and hungry predators, such as wolves and mountain lions, could be nearby. Often, wolverines dig snow caves with a complex tunnel system that includes a few “rooms.” Under a blanket of deep snow, the temperature can stay pretty toasty! But sometimes they den under fallen trees or in dens abandoned by other animals.
To fill its belly, a wolverine will often eat carrion, or already-dead prey. Its strong sense of smell helps it sniff out dead animals far away or deep beneath the snow. Wolverines can also be fierce hunters and can take down animals much bigger than themselves—even caribou and moose! But they also go after small mammals, such as rodents and hares. Wolverines do not hibernate, so they are constantly on the move, looking for their next meals.
A CLOSER LOOK
Scientists are eager to learn more about these amazing animals. Recently, scientists from The Wildlife Conservation Society studied one group of wolverines on Alaska’s arctic coast.
They captured them and gave them health checks. They then placed electronic tracking collars around the wolverines’ necks. The collars let the scientists know where the wolverines go.
The scientists also used small, low-flying planes to follow wolverine tracks. They found out that wolverines were following caribou for long distances—in one case for nearly 40 miles without stopping. Once the caribou became tired, the wolverines could overcome their prey. But sometimes these fearsome hunters have a little time to goof off. As scientists watched, one wolverine slid on its belly down a snowy hillside over and over. The scientists think it was just having fun!
The study showed that wolverines really need lots of snow to survive. They use it to shelter their kits, to store food, and to dig out resting places. A warming planet may hurt wolverines by reducing
the amount of snow that falls in their habitat. People also hunt wolverines for sport and for their fur. As tough as they are, wolverines might still need people’s help to survive.