A wolverine was captured on video by a tourist in Yellowstone National Park this week – an impressive feat considering a research survey conducted in the park from 2006 to 2009 only documented seven of them.
Park visitor Carl Kemp was on a tour through the world’s first national park on March 5, when he spotted a wolverine in the middle of the road.
The furry animal galloped back and forth in the snow as Kemp and his daughter Maya looked on.
Tour guide MacNeil Lyons from Yellowstone Insight tours encountered the elusive animal, which was found in the northeast corner of the park between Lamar Valley and Cooke City.
He has been working in various jobs at Yellowstone for over two decades, and this is the first time he has seen a wolverine up close within the park.
“It was unbelievable that this creature was right in front of us,” he said.
Wolverine, not wolf
Contrary to the name, the wolverine isn’t closely related to wolves. Rather, it’s a part of the weasel family, which also includes badgers, ferrets and otters, according to the US Department of the Interior.
Despite not being related to wolves, wolverines have a love-hate relationship with them. Wolverines sometimes eat the animal carcasses left over by wolves, said Rebecca Watters, executive director of The Wolverine Foundation.
However, wolves won’t hesitate to kill the mammals when in a direct conflict with them, she added.
Wolverines prefer a colder climate, with temperatures in August reaching no higher than 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius), Watters said.
So what are wolverines?
Wolverines weigh between 15 and 40 pounds (6.8 and 18.1 kilograms) and make their homes in the Rockies, Alaska, the Mongolian mountains, and parts of Russia and Canada, according to Watters.
The species’ scientific name is Gulo gulo, meaning “glutton glutton,” and for good reason. Wolverines gorge themselves when food is available and stash pieces of carcasses in deep holes to consume later, she said.
They primarily eat mice, squirrels, porcupine and caribou, said Mirjam Barrueto, a doctoral candidate at the University of Calgary in Canada.
Wolverines also have a keen sense of smell and can sniff out a carcass buried under several feet of snow, Watters said.
“If a mountain goat or sheep is caught in an avalanche, a wolverine can sniff out the carcass and dig down to it,” she explained.
Wolverines are a rarity everywhere
Wolverines aren’t just rare in Yellowstone. The elusive creatures have a low population around the world, which is partly because they’re territorial, Watters said.
An adult male keeps a territory of up to 500 square miles (1,295 square kilometers) while an adult female might roam 300 square miles (777 square kilometers), which doesn’t leave much room for a lot of wolverines, she explained.
Additionally, females give birth starting at 3 years old, producing about two kits every other year, Watters said. Wolverines live to a maximum of 15 years old, and about half of kits die before reaching adulthood, which is another contributing factor to their low population, she said.
“I’ve worked in wolverine research for 14 years, including in parts of Mongolia where the wolverine population is pretty dense, and I’ve only seen one in the wild,” Wattles said.
Yellowstone National Park advises visitors to keep a safe distance when viewing wildlife.