Colours of Wildlife: Wolverine

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Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Wolverine by Willem

I continue with the diversification of this column. Here you have another non-African critter. It's a Wolverine! Its scientific name is Gulo gulo. The word 'gulo' means glutton in Latin, and this animal is indeed sometimes known as a Glutton. In Afrikaans, it's a 'Veelvraat' ('much-glutton'). Other names for it include Skunk Bear, Nasty Cat, Quickhatch, and Carcajou, the latter two coming via native American names. Today, wolverines are characteristic of the very far north, inhabiting cold coniferous forests and tundra. They also live in high, cold mountainous regions as far south as California. But they used to occur in milder climes, having been driven from them quite recently by humans. During the Ice Ages as well, they occurred much further to the south.

It seems wolverines at least need some winter cold. They mate in summer. Not all males have access to females, while some have two or three, to which they stay faithful. After fertilization, the female typically delays the implantation of the embryo until late winter. She digs a den in the snow where she gives birth and nurses her young while they're very small. She also uses the snow to keep fresh food she finds and hoards to last her through winter and early spring. The father will sometimes come to visit his children in the den. The young are weaned at the age of three months, after which they start going out and seeking food on their own, being accompanies by their mother until five or seven months old, at which point they become independent. Some of them seek out and establish bonds with their fathers. In the wild, a wolverine can reach the age of about ten years.

Wolverines are the largest surviving land-living members of the Mustelidae, a large family of carnivores that includes weasels, martens, skunks, badgers, otters and more. Only a few of the otters are larger. In ancient times, much larger land-living mustelids did exist, and I hope to feature some of them here soon. Among the living mustelids, wolverines are most closely related to the Martens and to the Tayra of South America. Wolverines look like small bears, with a very compact build, and are exceptionally strong for their size. They reach a shoulder height of 30 to 45 cm/12"-18". They typically weigh 5-25 kg/11-55 lbs but exceptionally can exceed 30 kg/66 lbs. Their large paws are plantigrade, that is they walk flat on their soles rather than on their toes. Each foot has five digits armed with strong, curved claws, enabling wolverines to dig and to climb. They are brownish in colour, often with a band of light fur along their sides, and sometimes white patches on their throats and chests. Their shaggy coats are composed of long hairs that are oiled by skin glands to make them repel water, thus keeping wolverines warm and dry in cold and/or wet weather. (Unfortunately this wonderful fur of theirs have made them popular targets for humans who want the fur for their own purposes.) They have scent glands emitting a pungent odour with which they mark their territories and attract members of the opposite sex.

While having very strong teeth and claws, wolverines don't actually kill much, being willing to feed on carrion wherever they might find it. They are able to crunch up meat that has been frozen solid. A wolverine will follow the tracks of wolves, cougars, bobcats and other predators, on the chance of those having made a kill. If it's a pack of wolves that's brought down a deer or other large animal, the wolverine will wait until they've finished before moving in to eat; if it's something smaller like a lynx, the wolverine might drive it from its own kill. Wolverines can gulp down very large amounts of meat at a single sitting, thus inspiring its scientific and alternative common names. Of course, this is a strategy for making the most of whatever food it can find.

But wolverines can and do hunt on their own also. They are eclectic feeders and may target animals as small as mice, rats and squirrels, to adult deer, moose and young bison many times their own size. Their power and tenacity help them to bring these down. They may even try to kill other carnivores such as lynx or the pups of wolves. Because they are not very fast, they will often target animals that are hampered from moving, such as deer in deep snow, or animals caught in traps that humans set for them. They will eat eggs also, insect larvae, and some plant foods such as roots, seeds and fruits. They will also hoard excess food in caches, helping them last out the winter.

In turn, wolverines are sometimes hunted and killed by wolves. They are not easy to kill, though. Their strength and their thick hides make them nigh-invulnerable, but wolves have the advantage of numbers. Cougars and bears also sometimes kill wolverines. But mainly, the greatest enemy of wolverines are humans.

While hunted and persecuted in many places, wolverines still have access to very large regions of wild land and are not currently considered in danger of extinction. Still we can't be too complacent about them. Every single wolverine needs a very large hunting and foraging territory free from disturbance. The females' need for snow in the winter and spring may mean that their living range may shrink even more as a result of global warming.

Humans at least have much appreciation for wolverines. They've been depicted in art for thousands of years, and feature in Native American folk tales. They're popular modern mascots for cities, organizations and sports teams, and of course there's the comic character, Wolverine, who's starred in several recent popular fantasy action films. Let us hope that this appreciation encourages us to give the real wolverines out there a break!

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