We don’t often get a visit from the same wolverine. It is clear that this animal has our number.
We did not expect a familiar face as we cracked open the wooden box trap was set properly on the remote on the north slope of Alaska. But there he was: a wolverine staring at us, his face covered with the torn remains of frozen caribou.
As conservationists in Beringia — a (at least historically) icy patch of land and sea, that spread over the United States, Canada, and Russia, the embrace of the Bering and chukchi sea — we have a fair share of the time seen is this elusive carnivore, the wolverine (Gulo gulo).
The stout, canny predator, sometimes scavenger, it can grow to be about 45 kg. (20 kilos) and is built to withstand the challenging, subzero-degree environment of the north Pole. With the feet is large enough to act as snowshoes, strong muscles and a sharp ground teeth and claws, wolverines can take down an animal as large as a caribou in the middle of the winter, but they will also hunt small rodents, such as squirrels, when they’re looking for a tasty snack. Their thick, frost-shedding fur helps them to survive at temperatures that are in the twilight of winter, below minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 45 degrees Celsius). [Camera Trapped: Elusive Wildlife Caught in Photos]
Below-freezing temperatures are no match for the wolverine. These furry beasts will travel wide swaths of the territory to find a mate or securing a meal. If they want to save a meal for later, wolverines are known to cache in the snow as a hidden treasure of TV-dinners.
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This particular wolverine staring at us, however, recently threw us a curve ball: He had traveled great distances to enjoy a free meal from our box trap, and, as a result, find themselves caught up in the name of science until we found and brought him back into the wild.
To be clear, wolverines are generally seen as reclusive animals, whose meals often consist of a carcass left by another predator. For our research we use the smell of meat to lure and then trap them in a wooden box. Despite the fact that it is safe, the captured wolverines usually appear dismissal at best and seem to avoid traps as soon as they are released. But this wolverine was different, having clearly thrown convention to the wind.
Because he was first caught on St. Patrick’s Day this year, we named him Seamus. His strategy was simple: get stuck in, enjoy a meal and get released — room, and the board of directors, if you want.
Seamus was first captured around 10:30 hours local time on a narrow strip of land between the Arctic Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, under the swirling green of the aurora. There is something ineffable about keeping a sedated wolverine in your arms under one of nature’s most beautiful heavenly glasses.
After we collected data on Seamus and equipped him with a GPS tracking collar and a small ear tag, we brought him back in the wintry landscape. Our team had not expected to see him again at this time; he just had a new series of dots on a computer screen every day. However, he circled around to the other staircase about 15 miles (24 km) away and was caught again four days later, on March 21.
Verify that the GPS collar looked good, we again released him. Seamus went straight for yet another trap, more than 20 miles (32 km) of one of the other two where he got a free meal. How he zeroed in on this other traps so capable is a mystery. After his release again, Seamus returned to the same trap, and on March 23, was caught for a fourth time.
The decision Seamus had received enough of the free meals, we decided on the feast of St. Patrick was over for him! We moved the stairway, approximately 20 km north of the morning after letting go of him. Our new location, apparently did the trick, as he hasn’t been seen since … at least in person. The satellite signal remains to show him moving through the foothills of the Brooks Range, outside the range of our attack, but occasionally a visit with a female wolverine, we also collared, called Jazz. [Photos: Honey Badgers and Other Small Predators Caught on Camera]
The data from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is to collect on wolverines helps us to decipher these enigmatic creatures. WCS is working to better understand the habitat needs of wolverines in the Arctic tundra, especially as they relate to snow cover and the earlier spring melt. Wolverines use snow to their natal dens — as well as in the cache food and hide from predators — but very few details are known about how wolverines choose these sites, or how the changing spring snowpack could affect them or their newborn kits.
In a time of rapid climate change and the increasing interest in the development of the Arctic, it is imperative that we understand the areas that species, as the wolverines need in order to flourish in the future. With this knowledge, land managers can help avoid unnecessary effects on Seamus and the rest of the wolverines that call this region home.
If we continue with the study of this canny and poorly understood animals, we have more and more impressed with the wolverines’ tenacity and ability to survive in this harsh tundra environment. We can’t wait to see what they can teach us. Maybe Seamus will come back to us in our next season, to help us again in exchange for a meal.
Martin Robards is the regional director, and Tom Glass is lead wolverine researcher for the Arctic Beringia program at Wildlife Conservation Society. Robards and Glass contributed this article to Live Science’s Expert Voices: op-Ed & Insights.
This version of the article was originally published Live Science.