Appearing more like a small bear, the wolverine is in fact more of a weasel on steroids. This stocky little beast is the stuff of legends. Along with a voracious appetite it has a reputation for unmatched ferocity and apparently fears nothing. Pound for pound few other animals can match the wolverine for strength or attitude. So, it is fortunate this little bundle of terror lives on the sparsely populated fringes of the Arctic Circle.
Here we’ll look at the facts about the wolverine and some of the myths. Is it true the wolverine is capable of killing animals over 10 times bigger than itself such as moose. And more importantly could a wolverine kill a human?
The Wolverine (Gulo gulo)
- The Scientific name, Gulo gulo, means glutton. This comes from their reputation for having a formidable appetite.
- Wolverines are also known as carcajou, skunk bear, stink bear, nasty cat, devil bear or quickhatch.
- The wolverine is the largest member of the weasel family (mustelids) that lives exclusively on land. The South American giant otter and the sea otter are bigger.
- Average males weigh 20-55 lbs (9-25 kg) but the biggest recorded weigh nearer 75 lbs (35 kg). That’s around the size of a large pit bull, but with bags more attitude!
- Body length is up to 40 ins (110 cm) – not including tail.
- Wolverines have a very stocky, powerful and muscular build. I read somewhere they are strong enough to move a log that would take 2 men to lift.
- They have a broad rounded head with a short snout and very powerful jaws.
Wolverines are sometimes called the “Hyenas of the North” due to their bone cracking jaws. Essential when their diet consists largely of frozen meat.
- Like other mustelids they have a pair of special molar teeth at the back of mouth which are rotated 90 degrees. This makes it easier to tear off chunks of meat from prey, even if it is frozen solid.
- The wolverine has specialised, wide, five-toed, webbed paws. These allow it to run on powdery snow as if it were wearing snowshoes.
- Another of the wolverines weapons are its razor sharp claws. Think where the Marvel comic character idea came from. The animal’s claws are also long, curved and very strong. Ideal for grabbing onto prey and not letting go.
- Whilst the wolverine has small beady eyes, it has a great sense of smell. It can detect prey or carrion that has been buried under heavy snow.
- The thick, dense fur of the wolverine is highly specialised for living in the extreme cold. Not only does it repel water but it is the only fur that can be breathed on without frosting up.
For this reason it is favoured as a trimming on the hoods of “parka” coats.
- Wolverines live on average for around 4 to 6 years, but some have been known to reach up to 13 years
Where can I find a wolverine?
- Wolverines are found around the Arctic Circle; North America, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Siberia and Northern Asia.
- Despite being the self-proclaimed “Wolverine state”, only one wolverine has been spotted in Michigan in 200 years.
- The wolverine is fiercely territorial and males have large territories. They enjoy a solitary life and given sufficient space a male’s territory can be up to 240 miles2 (620 km2). This can encompass several female ranges, which are much smaller.
The rule is territories of the same sex mustn’t overlap. If they do there is trouble.
- Male wolverines like to roam. One individual in Yellowstone National Park was recorded travelling more than 500 miles (800km) in 42 days.
- Wolverines sleep and are active in 3 to 4 hour cycles.
- Wolverines are known to steal and hide things they have no possible use for.
In the words of one author: “They will remove and hide the entire contents of uninhabited hunting lodges: guns, knives, cooking utensils and blankets… …befouling whatever is left behind“.
- Wolverines can produce a foul smelling yellow fluid from anal scent glands. They use this for marking their territory or as mentioned above, wanton acts of vandalism.
- Mating occurs in summer but the female can delay pregnancy until mid-winter.
- A successful male may have a small harem of two or three females with which he forms a lifelong relationship. These he will visit from time to time. Unfortunately this means some males have to go without.
- Female wolverines build dens in late February. These can be dug as deep as 15 feet (5 m) into the snow.
- Wolverines are great dads! They make regular visits to their offspring until they are weaned at 10 weeks old. The youngsters reach maturity within their first year and at around six months some of them reconnect and team up with their fathers for a while.
What do wolverines eat?
- Wolverines will eat anything they can get their paws on!
- In order of size, favourite meals include; shrews, mice, voles, squirrels, rabbits, lemmings, marmots, porcupines, beavers, sheep, white-tailed deer, mule deer, roe deer, caribou, elk and moose.
- Did you say moose???
Yes, there have been cases of wolverines killing moose even though they are almost 20 times their size.That’s the equivalent of “a house cat bringing down a deer”. There seem to be other factors in these cases, e.g. the moose is injured but wolverines are exceptional hunters and will ambush large prey, even jumping out of trees.
- Wolverines will also eat other smaller predators from time to time. These include foxes, lynx, weasels and even wolf pups.
- Wolves will occasionally prey on wolverines.
- They get most of their food from scavenging. Either carrion they find, animals from traps, left-overs from other predators or in some cases they will take from another predator. There is one report of a wolverine attempting to rob a black bear ten times its size and getting killed in the process!
- Wolverines use freezers – they sometimes stash kills in icy crevices or under rocks for leaner times.
- Wolverines commonly eat the bones along with the meat. They have even been known to eat the teeth.
- They are highly opportunistic and are not averse to eating berries and fruit in the summer. Eggs are popular if they can find them and there are even reports of them eating plants.
How tough is a wolverine?
- In one word, very. These ferocious little carnivores have no fear. Once committed they take on a win or die mentality.
They are infeasibly strong for their size and will successfully defend their catch from much bigger animals including bears and wolves.
- There is a documented story of a wolverine killing a polar bear. The wolverine was put in a zoo enclosure with the bear and immediately attacked it, clamping on to the bears throat until it suffocated.
Can a wolverine kill a man?
Well, before I started researching this article I would have said there is absolutely no way a pumped up badger would have a chance at taking out a healthy human adult. Now I’m not so sure.
Let’s look at the facts. A big wolverine is around the same size as a medium sized dog, not that much smaller than a wolf. If everything that is written about theses super-weasels they are one of the strongest animals for their size, pound for pound. On top of this they are without fear, incredibly ferocious and armed with huge, sharp claws and crushing jaws.
It’s beginning to sound a little less of a fantastic idea already. Given their previous form with reports of them bringing down both predators and prey many times their size I’m beginning to side with the wolverine here.
Wolverines have one more thing in their favour, they can run on snow. In their own environment this would give them a big advantage, and there would certainly be no running away.
The good news is there has never been a documented instance of a wolverine attacking a human. So I guess we’ll never know for sure.