Wolverines are typically shy animals that live in remote, high-elevation terrain in North America, Europe and Asia. Most scientists believe that snow is important to their survival, since they den and give birth in places like avalanche chutes.
Wolverines are well-adapted to such regions with large feet to keep them atop the snow as they travel and thick fur that insulates them against the cold. They are known to live 10 to 12 years in the wilds of North America, but the females don’t reproduce until age 3 and then only give birth every other year.
The big mustelids – a family of carnivores that includes minks, badgers and martens – measure about 2-3 feet long and weigh 24-40 pounds. Although they will feed on plants and berries, they mainly dine on meat and will kill smaller animals as well as ones larger than them, earning them their ferocious reputation.
Wolverines also consume carrion, which may be where their scientific name – gulo gulo – from the Latin word for glutton, comes from.
Since the animals are elusive and live in remote country, they are difficult to study and estimates on their population are almost as evasive. It’s believed there are about 300 wolverines in the lower 48 states.
In the U.S.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering the wolverine for listing as a threatened and endangered species. Some scientists are concerned that as winters have shortened, secure denning habitat for the wolverines could disappear. Other scientists say snow may not be necessary for the animals to survive.
Proponents say listing would prompt a greater discussion about how humans deal with wildlife and climate change, an issue that’s bound to be more pressing if the current trend of shorter, warmer winters continues.