Like all the animals in the Mustelidae family, wolverines have very well-developed scent glands, which they use to mark their territories to warn other wolverines to stay away. That’s why young wolverines, which remain with their family for up to a year, will often travel hundreds of kilometres to establish a territory far away from other wolverines.
It was once believed that wolverines lived solitary lives, getting together only to breed during the summer. Although this is mainly true, researchers using GPS collars to track the animals have discovered that wolverines are more social than originally thought.
Matthew Scrafford, an ecologist with Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, has been studying wolverines in northern Ontario for more than three years. In that time, his GPS data has shown both wolverine parents hunting and scavenging with their offspring for days at a time. “They’re a family unit,” Scrafford explains. “They’re learning from each other and teaching their offspring. Before a lot of this good GPS data and cameras started coming in, we thought of them as loners — and they are — but they do spend a lot of time roaming around the landscape with each other.”
A healthy wolverine population is a strong indicator of a healthy ecosystem, Scrafford says, since the species requires a variety of foods gathered from large intact areas of interconnected wilderness — in other words, they need lots of types of food and lots of space to roam.
“We have found that in as far as they can withstand some human development, they’re not purely a wilderness species,” says Scrafford. “You do find wolverines in developed landscapes and forestry working landscapes. They don’t need pure wilderness to exist, although they have low density and low reproductive rates, so you have to watch what happens to their territory, or else they’re going to blink out of existence.”
Today, the biggest threat to wolverines is habitat loss and human development. Researchers are working with Indigenous communities across the North to track and monitor wolverine populations to better understand how their habitats are being affected by human encroachment.
The trickster hero — ferocious, clever and strong — will need all of its ingenuity to continue to flourish.