Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom
Wolverine Facts

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Species: Gulo gulo

Type: Weasel

Family: Mustelidae

Habitat: Arctic, subarctic, alpine, and boreal zones such as forests, grasslands, tundra, and rocky areas (e.g. inland cliffs, mountain peaks).

Range: Circumpolar: Canada, China, Estonia, Finland, Mongolia, Norway, Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States.

Population Health: Decreasing, but classified under “Least Concern” according to the IUCN Red List due to its “wide distribution and remaining large populations.”

Estimated Population Size: Due to low density and wide distribution, estimates are extremely difficult. Combining conclusions from various recent studies, the worldwide population likely ranges between 15,000 and 30,000 individuals.

Size: Resembling a small bear, the wolverine is 26 – 36 inches long, excluding its bushy, 5 – 10 inch tail; shoulder height is 14 – 17 inches, and weight is 20 – 66 pounds.

Diet: Deer, sheep, small bears, rodents, hares, and other small burrowing mammals. Large portion of diet also comes from scavenged meat from carcasses of large mammals such as caribou and elk.

Additional Facts:

  • The wolverine’s binomial name, Gulo gulo, comes from the Latin word gulo meaning glutton. It’s a fitting name; the wolverine has a voracious appetite and is known to devour even the bones and teeth of the animals it finds or kills. The wolverine can accomplish this feat thanks to its razor sharp teeth and powerful mandibles.
  • During the 19th century, wolverine populations nearly disappeared due to hunting and other human activities like deforestation and recreational use of their habitats. But over the last few decades, they have been staging a comeback—many scientists expect large populations living in Canada and the northern United States.
  • While the wolverine is the largest species of the land-dwelling weasels, it is much smaller than many of the other mammals within its territory. However, its size belies its strength and remarkable fearlessness—there is at least one reported story of a 30 pound wolverine attempting to steal a kill from a 400 to 500 pound black bear!
  • The wolverine’s sense of smell is uncanny—it can detect a carcass lying 20 feet under the snow, allowing it to find the remains of animals killed in avalanches.
  • A solitary and nocturnal hunter, the wolverine spends most of the year by itself, roaming its enormous territory, which varies from 65 km in Montana, USA to over 600 km in Scandinavia.
  • Wolverines were once thought to be entirely reclusive and anti-social, getting together only for the purpose of mating. However, new findings indicate that after infants are born, they stay with their mother for up to an entire year and the dad returns periodically to help raise the kits. It turns out wolverine dads like to show their offspring the ropes.
  • Wolverines have an average life expectancy of 4 to 6 years, but some can reach up to 13. They come to sexual maturity around 2.5 years and mate during the spring and summer months with new litters of 1-2 infants, sometimes as many as 5, being born between February and April.
  • Weighing only 30 pounds, the wolverine’s proportionally enormous paws act as snow shoes, allowing it to move quickly over snow covered areas. While this gives wolverines a huge advantage over their competitors, it also makes them highly vulnerable to climate change. Snow, in other words, is crucial for their survival.
  • Wovlerine paws not only act as show shoes, but also double as claws, with the tip of each of its twenty toes curved and extremely sharp. Equipped with these hook-like extremities, the wolverine possesses what might be called natural crampons, which allow it to scale an ice fall or a sheer cliff with little difficulty.
  • Not only do wolverines use snow to their advantage when hunting, they also build snow dens in which the kits are born and nursed. Because reproduction occurs during spring, this requires that snow cover persists well into February and March. Climate change, however, will likely bring spring temperatures earlier in certain areas, which poses another risk to the wolverine’s survival by further limiting its range.
  • When female wolverines build their dens in late February, they dig as deep as 15 feet below the snow to protect their young from predators and the cold.
  • Wolverines are perhaps best known for their attitude. They don’t hesitate to fight with wolves and other predators over a meal, and given the right snow conditions are even capable of taking down a moose—a feat wolverine specialist Doug Chadwick likens to “a house cat bringing down a deer.”
  • In 2009, a wolverine named M56 was captured near Grand Teton National Park. Scientists tracked M56 using radio equipment and were astonished by its journey—it traveled 550 solitary miles during April and May, over highways, mountain ranges, and across state lines. M56 became the first observed wolverine in Colorado since 1919.
  • The wolverine has a great deal of spiritual significance for Native Americans. For some, it functions as a link to the spiritual world and is understood as both a trickster and a hero.
  • Wolverines are known for having a very strong odor. They use their pungent smell in order to mark their territory and ensure that no rival wolverines invade their range.
  • Because wolverines are both extremely territorial and highly sensitive to disturbance, the increasing popularity of winter backcountry recreation combined with new and more powerful snow machine technologies suggests that wolverine range will continue to diminish to due human activity.
  • Wolverines are notoriously difficult to study in the wild, which is why so little has been known about them. Scientists are only just beginning to put together an accurate picture of this marvelous creature by combining a number of research methods such as radio-tracking, remote camera surveys, live traps, and DNA traps.
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  • Benjamin Hurlock

    The wolverine is an amazing animal and after reading these facts I believe that this animal is overwhelmingly undappreciated and unknown by the public. If people only knew the beauty and granoise of the wolverine they would be more interested in learning about it and protectiong it. I can’t wait for the episode to come on, i have been marking my calender for the past couple months. The wolverine is an animal I plan on studying when I’m older and I hope that I can help in getting the word out about this magnificent animal.

  • Thomas Hill

    Eversinse my cjildhood I have head of the terrable visiounessness of the wolverine. It is my ubderstanding that the native Indian tought of them as the devil, for the vicious manner in which thay fouhgt to secure food, and in defence of their den.

  • marci

    The dedication of the people tracking,photographing and studying the wolverines in this special was only one-upped by the amazing animal itself.I had very little knowledge of this magnificent animal and the program left me wanting more.The fact that it can exist in the harsh freezing areas and be able to find enough to eat to not only sustain itself but raise a few kits is amazing.Thanks for a great look at a wonderful animal.

  • StarrDust

    The other name for Wolverine is Bear Cat do to the fact it looks like a small bear and moves like a cat. The Wolverine is one of the only animals that will hunt people and destroy there property just for the fun of it, if provoked. There are many stories from trappers of Wolverine trashing there cabins after they made them mad. Wolverine will take on a Badger for there den and win. As for Wolverine being a Devil that is a Christian term not a Native term. Native peoples respected Bear Cat and it’s mystical powers. To be of the Wolverine society one had to endure things that can not be talked about. It is said Do Not attract the attention of or make mad a Wolverine unless you want to have your worst Night Mare in real time.

  • nora tracy

    I am an individual that has had a positive wolverine sighting and now hope to capture it on film for proof.
    Just a Michigander.

  • sally blue wolf

    i am a lenni lenape indian and that is not true about the wolverines ,mister thomas hill .

  • Honey Badger

    The Wolverine is quite a remarkable animal. However, I think PBS Nature should do an episode on the Honey Badger!

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  • John Angen

    I intend to do some prospecting in the Tahoe National Forest this spring and summer. I wish to avoid contact with any wolverines. Can you tell me how to best do that. Thanks. John Angen

  • jacqui shepherd

    I am familiar with wolverines as i lived in vail,colorado and they have many of them in the rockies, they are a very dangerous critter, but they are here for a purpuse.

  • David Gouin

    The wolverine is one of the most important animals in North America,in that it shows us how different our wildlife is from most of the world.Sally Blue Wolf and everyone else.Let the new realization help the animals,lets not worry about how the newly realised interpret it.At least,we can all agree tThey soon will see.hat the wild is wonderful.Sally blue wolf;Sens sawat dona. They soon will see.

  • Samantha

    A wonderful film! I own four Ferrets, also in the Mustelidae family. While watching this I noticed the exact behavior between the two cousins. Just from watching my own Ferrets I knew a lot about the Wolverine with out being aware of it, the climbing, tumbling, fearlessness, playing, curiosity, persistence, destructiveness, etc. I am going to recommend this film to all that I know who are interested in Ferrets. I think you should do a piece on all the members of the Mustelidae family. Also, I was hoping you could send me more information on that mans reservation, I’d like to go there someday. Thank you!

  • Jimmy Mingucci

    I watched this fabulous show on PBS about the Wolverine and it left an enormous impression on me. I submitted some very well thought out comments right here about 3 or 4 weeks ago and I was a bit disappointed that I never seen them with the other comments I have read. It might sound trivial, but I have been studying animals and their behavior for over 30 years and with such little known about the Wolverine, I had so many questions that were answered by watching this particular documentary on PBS. i believed that my comments were intelligent and passionate. I read every single comment that has been printed and I am not sure as to why mine was not printed. It discourages me to interact again. I thought PBS was about real people like myself and I wanted to get involved. I am sorry to be making an issue at all about this, but having read the other comments I was just disappointed that I probably appreciated the program more than anyone and I was left out.

  • Michelle

    I just watched a half hours show on the WILD National Geo on the wolverine it was fabulous. Now this animal is one of my favorite wild animal.

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