SCORES & OUTDOORS: Things you see in the dark

Wolverine, left, and Fisher, right.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Well, today we have an interesting question.

A supporter sent an email to me stating they had seen a wolverine crossing the Bog Road, in Vassalboro, on their way home from the Vassalboro town meeting last Monday night. After looking online, this person is sure it was a wolverine.

The wolverine is the largest land-dwelling species of the family Mustelidae (otters, weasels, badgers, ferrets, martens, minks). It is a muscular carnivore and a solitary animal. The wolverine has a reputation for ferocity and strength out of proportion to its size, with the documented ability to kill prey many times larger than itself.

The wolverine is found primarily in remote reaches of the Northern boreal forests and subarctic and alpine tundra of the Northern Hemisphere, with the greatest numbers in Northern Canada, the U.S. state of Alaska, the mainland Nordic countries of Europe, and throughout western Russia and Siberia. Its population has steadily declined since the 19th century because to trapping, range reduction and habitat fragmentation. The wolverine is now essentially absent from the southern end of its range in both Europe and North America.

Anatomically, the wolverine is an elongated animal that is low to the ground. With strong limbs, broad and rounded head, small eyes and short rounded ears, it most closely resembles a large fisher. Though its legs are short, its large, five-toed paws with crampon-like claws and plantigrade posture enable it to climb up and over steep cliffs, trees and snow-covered peaks with relative ease.

The adult wolverine is about the size of a medium dog. Wolverines have thick, dark, oily fur which is highly hydrophobic, making it resistant to frost. This has led to its traditional popularity among hunters and trappers as a lining in jackets and parkas in Arctic conditions. A light-silvery facial mask is distinct in some individuals, and a pale buff stripe runs laterally from the shoulders along the side and crossing the rump just above a bushy tail. Some individuals display prominent white hair patches on their throats or chests.

Like many other mustelids, it has potent anal scent glands used for marking territory and sexual signaling. The pungent odor has given rise to the nicknames “skunk bear” and “nasty cat.” Wolverines, like other mustelids, possess a special upper molar in the back of the mouth that is rotated 90 degrees, towards the inside of the mouth. This special characteristic allows wolverines to tear off meat from prey or carrion that has been frozen solid.

Wolverines are considered to be primarily scavengers. A majority of the wolverine’s sustenance is derived from carrion, on which it depends almost exclusively in winter and early spring. Wolverines may find carrion themselves, feed on it after the predator (often, a pack of wolves) has finished, or simply take it from another predator. Wolverines are also known to follow wolf and lynx trails, purportedly with the intent of scavenging the remains of their kills. Whether eating live prey or carrion, the wolverine’s feeding style appears voracious, leading to the nickname of “glutton”. However, this feeding style is believed to be an adaptation to food scarcity, especially in winter.

The wolverine is also a powerful and versatile predator. Its prey mainly consists of small to medium-sized mammals, but the wolv­erine has been recorded kill­ing prey such as adult deer that are many times larger than itself. Prey species include porcupines, squirrels, chipmunks, beavers, marmots, moles, gophers, rabbits, voles, mice, rats, shrews, lemmings, caribou, roe deer, white-tailed deer, mule deer, sheep, goats, cattle, bison, moose, and elk. Smaller predators are occasionally preyed on, including martens, mink, foxes, Eurasian lynx, weasels, [coyote, and wolf pups. Wolverines often pursue live prey that are relatively easy to obtain. Their diets are sometimes supplemented by birds’ eggs, birds (especially geese), roots, seeds, insect larvae, and berries.

Wol­ver­ines frequently cache their food during times of plenty. This is of particular importance to lactating females in the winter and early spring, a time when food is scarce.

Wolves, American black bears, brown bears, cougars, and golden eagles are capable of killing wolverines, particularly young and inexperienced individuals. Wolves are thought to be the wolverine’s most important natural predator. Armed with powerful jaws, sharp claws, and a thick hide, wolverines are remarkably strong for their size. By far, their most serious predator is the grey wolf.

Wolverines live primarily in isolated arctic, boreal, and alpine regions of northern Canada, Alaska, Siberia, and Fennoscandia; they are also native to European Russia, the Baltic countries, the Russian Far East, northeast China and Mongolia. In the Sierra Nevada, wolverines were sighted near Winnemucca Lake in spring 1995 and at Toe Jam Lake north of the Yosemite border in 1996; and later photographed by baited cameras, including in 2008 and 2009, near Lake Tahoe. According to a 2014 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service publication, “wolverines are found in the North Cascades, in Washington, and the Northern Rocky Mountains, in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Wyoming. Individual wolverines have also moved into historic range in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California and the Southern Rocky Mountains of Colorado, but have not established breeding populations in these areas.

Most New World wolverines live in Canada and Alaska. However, wolverines were once recorded as also being present in Colorado, areas of the southwestern United States (Arizona and New Mexico), the Midwest (Indiana, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin), New England (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts) and in New York and Pennsylvania.

Many North American cities, teams, and organizations use the wolverine as a mascot. For example, the US state of Michigan is, by tradition, known as “the Wolverine State”, and the University of Michigan takes the animal as its mascot. There have also been professional baseball and football clubs called the “Wolverines”.

Marvel Comics character James “Logan” Howlett was given the name “Wolverine” because of his short stature, keen animal senses, and ferocity.

The wolverine is prevalent in stories and oral history from various Algonquian tribes and figures prominently in the mythology of the Innu people of eastern Québec and Labrador.

So, now the question is: are there wolverines in Maine? According to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, wolverines are not found in New England, although they did at one time. But fishers are, and in the right light, they could look like small wolverines. What did that person see that night? In the dark, it could possibly have been a fisher, which bears a resemblance to a small wolverine.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Which Boston Red Sox player was the first rookie in history to gather both the Rookie of the Year, and Most Valuable Player awards, in the same year?

Answer can be found here.


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