It all started with an article I read about an innovative pilot project out of Alaska to replace avalanche rescue dogs with rescue wolverines. At first, I was quite skeptical. Have you seen a wolverine? Their teeth are very white and sharp and three times bigger than seems strictly necessary. Their claws are easily understood as the inspiration for X-Men Wolverine’s adamantium ones. Do you really want a creature that looks like this digging you out of a snowbank?
Can you imagine lying encased and terrified in the snow, and then hearing the rustling and snow crunching of a rescuer approaching? Hope floods through you. Any second now, the snow will be cleared away, fresh air will reach your face. You might expect to see the soft fur, gentle eyes, and lolling tongue of a St. Bernard. Do they still carry little casks of brandy? That would really hit the spot right now.
Instead, you’d potentially come face to face with the largest and fiercest member of the weasel family, an aggressive hunter with little fear, almost unmatched strength, and the ability to run on snow as efficiently as a hare. There are documented cases of a wolverine bringing down a moose, in spite of the significant size differences. They’ve also been known to fight with black bears over a meal. Wolverines are not to be trifled with.
Wolverines often scavenge, sometimes even trailing a wolf pack in order to take part of their kill, but they are excellent hunters on their own, too. With their ability to scent prey through up to six metres of snow and ice, they are particularly adept at locating beaver lodges, and using their claws to dig through the frozen ice and branches to get inside. Wolverines are clever too, and have been known to enter an empty beaver lodge and wait for the prey to return.
It’s precisely these traits that make wolverines potential rescue-assistants. In the wild, they’ve even been known to search for animals buried along avalanche lines, looking for an easy meal. They are intelligent enough to be trained to search specifically for a human scent, and to find it up to six metres beneath the snow. When raised from birth, wolverines can be tamed, and will bond to their caretakers similar to dogs, and they apparently enjoy harness training and mountain expeditions with their human caretakers. If rescue wolverines become a thing, they will most likely be involved more in searching out avalanche victims, and not so much rescuing, leaving the digging to the humans. Looking at those claws again, I’d say this is a good thing.
I had no idea that wolverines were so intelligent and trainable, being mostly familiar with the wolverine’s reputation for ferocity. I was intrigued enough to do some research (yep, time for your weekly reminder that I’m a nerdy researcher again) and I know a lot more about wolverines now. Previously thought to be solitary, they actually have fairly close-knit family groups. The male wolverine is an active parent who helps defend the den from rival males, as well as predators such as wolves and lynx. Young wolverines remain near their parents until their ‘teen’ years, following them around and learning to hunt and forage. As fits their appearance, it seems like their social life is sort of a mix between a wolf and a bear; they are not as permanently social as wolves, but more so than bears, where the males have no part in the raising of cubs.
The lighter coloured patterns on a wolverine’s chest are as distinct as a fingerprint, and in a recent documentary Wolverine: Ghost of the Northern Forest, filmmaker Andrew Manske learned to immediately recognize individual wolverines based on these markings, which helped track their family interactions.
After learning all this, my estimation of wolverines has vastly improved. When you get past the aggressive reputation and dangerous white teeth, they’re honestly quite majestic and beautiful. If I ever get an opportunity to meet an avalanche rescue wolverine (not a wild one) I would be very excited. I might even want to pet it, even though they are also apparently a bit smelly, as you might expect for a giant weasel.
In conclusion, I warned you my blog would be random sometimes, and wolverines are cool. Move over foxes, I have a new favourite. (But I still love foxes too).