What Will Happen to Wolverines Like Seamus?

Story at-a-glance -

  • Scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have been closely monitoring the distances the wolverines traverse, what they eat and how they survive to raise their kits in the spring snows
  • In one area between Russia and Alaska, one of their study subjects figured out how to get a free meal from the human interlopers who put food out to observe him and his wolverine comrades
  • Being omnivores, wolverines eat both meat and vegetation, from mountain goats, caribou and moose to smaller animals like rodents and ground squirrels (including dead animals), as well as bird eggs and berries
  • A wolverine’s favorite meal is meat, and they’ll go to great lengths to procure it, even traveling 15 miles in a 24-hour period in search of food and settling for eating dead animals they didn’t kill
  • In light of the implications of what is now known as climate change, the survival of wolverines, as well as other Arctic animals, has been of special importance and urgency in the scientific world

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

They’ve been compared to skunks because of their oddly long puffed-out fur and bushy tails; bears due to their thick, stumpy legs and small, rounded ears; and certain dogs because of their elongated noses. If you’re not very familiar with wolverines, members of the weasel family, suffice it to say they’re very unique, fascinatingly smart omnivorous animals. One of their oddest physical characteristics is a wide band of fur in a paler hue, resembling a large, donut-shaped blanket thrown over their backs.

Observe them for a while and it’s clear wolverines aren’t lap kitties. When their mouths are closed, you might think they have a rather benign expression, but should they be cornered, they may reveal their impossibly widespread jaws, dreadful-looking teeth and emit their characteristically deep, distinctive growl. They stand an average of 30 inches high, weigh around 45 pounds and have sizeable padded feet with powerful claws, but they’re not overly large.

These are the animals a team of conservationists and scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have been closely monitoring — from the distances the wolverines traverse, to what they eat, to how they hunker down and raise their kits in the spring snows. As sometime-scavengers as well as canny predators, wolverines are designed to thrive easily even in punishing sub-zero environments.

“With feet large enough to act like snowshoes, strong musculature and a honed set of teeth and claws, wolverines can take down an animal as large as a caribou in the middle of winter, but they'll also hunt small rodents, such as ground squirrels, when they're looking for a tasty morsel. Their thick, frost-shedding fur helps them survive at temperatures that, in the twilight of winter, can drop below minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit.”1

Dealing with aplomb the incredibly harsh temperatures most would call “not fit for man nor beast,” wolverines travel widely across miles of terrain in search of prey, or an equally hardy mate. Interestingly, one of the scientists’ observations is of satiated wolverines who refuse to abandon leftovers to be scarfed down by other scavengers, piecemealed by insects or ruined by decay. Instead, Live Science reveals, these clever animals’ own conservation efforts take advantage of the freezer-like climate:

“Both captive and wild wolverines have been observed hiding food, such as meat taken from reindeer carcasses, creating caches of food for lean times. These caches are important for the survival of young wolverines, since these animals give birth in a narrow window of time, unusually early in the year for carnivores that do not hibernate.”2

Seamus: One Wily Wolverine

Beringia is a land bridge made up of land and sea between the U.S., Canada and Russia. This is the area scientists concentrated on for their wolverine research, and one of the things they discovered first is that these animals aren’t necessarily the reclusive animals they were once thought to be.

Besides the Arctic, wolverines populate areas throughout Europe, Asia and North America, traveling and frequenting northern alpine forests, taiga areas between tundra and steppe regions between Siberia and Alaska, as well as grasslands. National Geographic notes that male wolverines scent-mark the territory they roam, but they share it with several females, and they’re thought to be polygamous. In addition:

“Females den in the snow or under similar cover to give birth to two or three young each late winter or early spring. Kits sometimes live with their mother until they reach their own reproductive age — about two years old.”3

Most young, eyes closed and bearing white fur, are born between February and mid-March and stay with their mothers until they’re ready to head out on their own and have babies themselves, at around age 2, but the male fathers have been known to visit from time to time.4

The researchers used the scent of meat and box traps to capture whatever wily wolverines came along. While they enjoy a meal of caribou, moose, rodents, berries and birds’ eggs, their all-time favorite is meat, and they go to great lengths — and distances — to get it. They can travel 15 miles in 24 hours in search of food, and even smell prey 20 feet below the snow, and don’t mind digging low enough to kill and eat hibernating animals, or making a meal of dead animal carcasses other animals killed.

After recording the time configurations and other data regarding their feisty captives, the scientists would then release the wolverines who’d found the box traps back into the wild. While most of their wolverine charges seemed resigned once they’d been caught, and avoided being in the proximity of the box traps once they’d been released, one was different.

This clever fellow, which they named Seamus as he was caught (the first time) on St. Patrick’s Day, took unapologetic advantage of the situation. It apparently hadn’t taken long for Seamus to figure out that if he didn’t mind captivity for a short time, as well as being fitted with a GPS tracking collar and a small ear tag, he could get a free meal from the human interlopers.

On the morning they came to check their box trap, Seamus’ face was still a dead giveaway that the remains of a frozen caribou they’d placed there to lure him in had been a recent meal. Live Science sums up the scenario: “His strategy was simple: get trapped, enjoy a meal and get released — room and board, if you like.”

The trap had closed on Seamus at 10:30 p.m. in an area between the Arctic Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. It was the same night the scientists also observed the swirling green effervescence of the aurora known as the Northern Lights in the location between the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska and Arctic Refuge. Researchers Martin Robards, Ph.D. and Tom Glass noted:

“There's something ineffable about holding an anesthetized wolverine in your arms under one of nature’s most exquisite celestial spectacles … Our team did not expect to see him again anytime soon; he'd just be a series of new dots on a computer screen each day. However, he circled around to another trap some 15 miles (24 kilometers) away and was caught again four days later.”5

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Seamus?

While the scientists were rather amused that Seamus had figured out what might happen if he approached another box trap, it was rather surprising to them that he’d obviously headed straight toward another trap more than 20 miles away. In fact, their scientific data recorded their bemusement: “How he zeroed in on these other traps so capably is a mystery.” It was the wolverine’s third voluntary incarceration after his initial capture.

It may not have occurred to the scientists when they worked out their observation procedure that one of their study subjects could and would be so willing to “game the system.”

They hadn’t really prepared for the possibility that one would comprehend their complicated scientific strategies, and in essence, get the last laugh. Realizing it was time for the humans to take charge of the situation, their tongue-in-cheek observation was deciding “the feast of St. Patrick was over for him!” They immediately moved the trap 20 miles in the opposite direction. Ensuing entries noted:

“Our new location apparently did the trick, as he's not been seen since … at least in person. His satellite signal continues to show him moving through the foothills of the Brooks Range, out of reach of our traps but occasionally visiting with a female wolverine we also collared, named Jazz.”6

Meeting Seamus was arguably one of the high points as the WCS scientists worked on observing him and his wolverine comrades in unbelievable cold, snow and brutal conditions, but they remain dedicated to collecting data on the animals and are still working on understanding their habitats in the Arctic tundra.

However, one of the targeted areas of interest in recent years has been how wolverines use snow to make the dens in which they bear and raise their young kits, hide from predators and store food in light of a changing climate. How do these fascinating animals continue to choose their sites, and how does the changing landscape impact their safety and that of their newborns?

How Climate Change Relates to Wolverine Survival

Although they were already considered experts on wolverines, scientists’ interest in the Arctic is heightened due to changes to what Live Science asserts is caused by the Greenhouse Effect, or “how humanity has managed to heat up the planet.”7 The eventuality, scientists say, is that climate change will likely continue the phenomenon of melting glaciers but could also cause things like extreme weather and ocean acidification.

In light of the implications of this phenomenon, observed since temperatures were first recorded in 1880, the survival of wolverines, as well as other Arctic animals, has been of special importance and scrutiny in the scientific world. WCS and other scientific organizations are concerned about finding how to proceed on behalf of such wildlife in the coming years. Live Science notes:

“As we continue to study this canny and poorly understood animal, we have become increasingly impressed with the wolverines' tenacity and ability to survive in this harsh tundra environment. We can't wait to see what more they might teach us. Perhaps Seamus will return to us in our next season, helping us again in exchange for a meal.”8

That said, the concern is that wolverines, which seem to not just thrive on but depend on snow cover for their survival, may find themselves at some risk. Under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (Act), they’ve been considered vulnerable due to the warming trend enough to be placed on the “candidate for protection” list in 2010.

Although a 2008 report says Act-specific protection for wolverines isn’t warranted, the Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with an annual review of the status of wolverines: “The Service will continue to seek new information regarding the status of the wolverine and continue to support cooperative conservation efforts to benefit the species in its native range.”9 In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) put wolverines on the “least concern” category on their Red List, noting:

“The Wolverine is listed as Least Concern because of its wide distribution, remaining large populations, and the unlikelihood that it is in decline at a rate fast enough to trigger even Near Threatened …

However, in the mid-2000s the European Mammal Assessment determined that the European populations of Wolverine were in steep decline and would warrant a category of Vulnerable … More data on population trends, especially in northern Asia, might result in this species being re-assessed as Near Threatened or even Vulnerable in the near future.”10