Two Years Later, Looking Back and Looking Ahead

Two years ago, five of us emerged from the Sayan Mountains of northern Mongolia after 23 days of skiing around the Darhad Valley. In his pack, Jason Wilmot carried 33 samples – scat, urine, hair – that we had picked up in the backcountry. Our journals and GPS units recorded 28 sets of wolverine tracks. We were gaunt, ragged, frostbitten, filthy…and ecstatic.

Or I was, anyway. As the director and lead scientist of the Mongolian Wolverine project, and the first person to undertake a systematic survey of wolverines in that country, I’d shared many an anxious conversation with Jason about whether long-range ski surveys, even in areas known to harbor wolverine populations, would prove a valid technique for yielding data. We weren’t sure that the expedition would provide worthwhile information. We speculated that we’d be lucky to find a single set of wolverine tracks and a single DNA sample. When we found our first track 45 minutes after setting out on the first day of the expedition, we laughed and said we could just turn around and go home. Mission accomplished, our single track and sole DNA sample retrieved. I was giddy, that first day.

By day three, as I crawled into a hole where the wolverine that had left track #5 had stashed a chunk of elk and the wing of a capercallie, the giddiness had settled into a persistent hum of excitement. Deep down, I’d hoped, and probably known, that the reports of wolverines that I’d collected from the Darhad over the past four years, and the pelts that I’d seen, meant that the species was in the mountains in force. But when you study the animal in North America, it feels almost miraculous to find a single set of tracks. I’d found tracks in Mongolia before, in summer snowfields, and even pulled samples from those tracks. Still, neither Jason – the co-PI on the project since its inception in 2009 and a fellow veteran of the initial 2010 Darhad wolverine research (horseback, not ski) expedition – nor I were prepared for the abundance of tracks and samples.

Jason, Jim, and Forrest taking a break at a wolverine track site, 2013.

Jason, Jim, and Forrest taking a break at a wolverine track site, 2013

Jason, and wolverine biologist Jeff Copeland, originally conceived of doing wolverine work in Mongolia before I knew either of them. Jeff had taken an initial exploratory trip to the country in 2004, but, busy with work in the US, had done nothing further. When I met Jason in 2006, I was a grad student looking at wolves in the Yellowstone ecosystem, but he and his wife discussed their wolverine work in Glacier and Yellowstone with me, and Jason expressed interest in doing work on the species in Mongolia, and I was immediately intrigued. I had been a Peace Corps environmental volunteer in Mongolia, spoke the language, and wanted to go back to study wildlife. A little bit of inquiry suggested that no one had ever done systematic work on Mongolian wolverines. Neither Jason nor Jeff had the time to dedicate to leading a project, but I did. What seemed at first like a pipe dream – go research the world’s most difficult-to-study species in a country with almost no infrastructure – gradually took shape as Jason, Jeff, and other wolverine biologists mentored me, supported my grant-writing, and shared my growing excitement as the pieces came together.

The major challenges were logistics and funding. It’s one thing to conceptualize a wildlife research project in the US, where helicopters, GPS collars, snowmobiles, and airplanes are available to those with the bank accounts to pay for them. It’s another thing entirely to conceptualize a project in a place like Mongolia, where technology that we’re accustomed to here in the States is absent even if you’ve got the funds.

Mongolia, however, has something that dominant American culture lacks – a human population that has been living with and observing their wildlife over thousands of years. A large part of that population continues to herd livestock through wolverine habitat to this day. My initial efforts focused on simply talking to people, using a blind interview technique that allowed them to identify wildlife species in the area without knowing which one I was looking for. I also took small clips from pelts of animals that had already been killed – emphasizing that under no circumstances was I asking people to kill wolverines for me – in order to begin to build a DNA database, to add to the five samples that Jeff Copeland had obtained from fur hats in 2004. Interviewing proved to be an effective method, and the extraordinary conversations about nature and wildlife that followed were both informative and inspiring. By 2010, we had quadrupled the samples from Mongolian wolverines. We had gone from an insane idea to a place where we were gaining increments of understanding.

Gulo tracks in the Altai, 2010

Gulo tracks in the Altai, 2010

I didn’t, however, want to be one of those obnoxious Americans who shows up in a place, does some research, and claims a bunch of “discoveries” for herself, so from the outset I viewed the work as collaborative and reciprocal. I kept in trust the particulars of cultural stories and practices that belong to Mongolians, shared the basic scientific data on distribution, and saw the project as a long-term investment in building research and conservation capacity with interested communities. By 2010, when Jason first traveled to Mongolia with me, I’d delineated the Darhad and the surrounding mountains as the most likely region for doing a longer-term project. For one thing, it was the largest region of modeled wolverine habitat in the country, and the interview data and the pelts that I saw confirmed that they were there and that people saw them pretty frequently. For another, there was one protected area already in existence in the mountains, and another two were being proposed, which meant that we would have the structure of a dedicated conservation entity to work with. My particular objective – find out what wolverines are up to – could be combined with building conservation capacity amongst rangers and protected area staff. This made it the ideal location for a sustainable project. And finally, this region had robust existing ties with the Yellowstone ecosystem through programs such as BioRegions International, affiliated with Montana State University, and several tourist companies and conservation outfits. So the potential positive outcomes were manifold.

The big challenge, however, was moving from the efficient, low-cost, first-cut interview and basic survey techniques, to a more scientifically rigorous assessment of the Darhad population. Jason and I had discussed and tentatively planned ski surveys for DNA samples as an intermediate step between interviewing, and camera and collar work that would allow us to obtain demographic data and test hypotheses. I’d taken a year off to work for the Clinton Foundation in Cambodia after our 2010 expedition, so we’d just started to discuss these things again in 2011 when Forrest McCarthy, a renowned mountaineer, wolverine researcher, and friend from my time in Jackson, got in touch to ask if I wanted to collaborate on a proposal to National Geographic. He wanted to do ski surveys for wolverine in the Altai Mountains in western Mongolia, where I’d previously interviewed people and found some tracks. Forrest had a friend who had been working on the Chinese side of the Altai and who had picked up a number of wolverine tracks there. Forrest imagined an expedition on the Mongolian side of the range, and floated the idea to an acquaintance, chance met at an outdoor gear expo, who had some connections at National Geographic. The two of them decided to try to organize an expedition. This dovetailed perfectly with the ski surveys that Jason and I had been discussing.

In the conversations that followed, I suggested that for the sake of long-term scientific and conservation impact, we shift the proposal to the Darhad, since I intended to continue to work in the region, and the ski expedition could help us refine baseline data in preparation for more serious research. We already knew that there were wolverines in both the Darhad and the Altai, so simply detecting tracks and picking up DNA wasn’t very useful unless those efforts were placed into the framework of more comprehensive work. Hence the Darhad was a better target than the Altai for a one-off ski survey, since a National Geographic sponsored trip would be one among many mutually-reinforcing research activities.

Forrest, at some cost to his personal interest in the Altai, agreed to the change. Jason and I wrote the grant based on our previous work, tweaking pre-existing proposals, and Forrest and his acquaintance, Gregg Treinish, added expedition details. Forrest was instrumental in assessing the maps and terrain to develop a route navigable on skis and still useful to wolverine research, since he’d run ski-based wolverine surveys before. Gregg proved adept at getting gear donations, and the staff of his organization – through which we submitted the grant – worked hard to make sure the logistics were in place. We were later joined by Jim Harris, a talented photographer with a background in wildlife biology. Thus the first Mongolian wolverine ski expedition was born, in conjunction with the scientific objectives of my long-term project.

So what is the state of Mongolian wolverine work, and the broader efforts to build conservation capacity, two years after we stumbled out of the snowbound mountains?

For various reasons, the road to hard scientific results from the DNA samples has proven as circuitous as the expedition itself. There have been a number of issues around this, which don’t bear examination here, but rest assured that the samples will eventually yield published results. There should also be a methods paper, examining long-range ski surveys as a technique for collecting data of a certain scope and quality. First, though, we need to assess whether what happened in 2013 was normal, or whether it was a fluke. To do that, we need replicate ski surveys to show that this is an effective way to obtain data and – perhaps – monitor over the long term. Those replicates are in the works.

In the meantime, however, I was able to spend last summer developing the other, probably even more important, piece of the project, which involves collaboration with the Mongolian protected areas administration and entities in the US that can help insure a long-term program for research and conservation in Mongolia. With the collaboration of BioRegions International, we built a summer workshop program for 40 staff, rangers, and local environmental officers in the Darhad. Two US National Park Service scientists from the NPS Inventory and Monitoring Program, and conservation biologist Lance Craighead of the Craighead Institute, served as presenters in an exchange that is the first step in what will become, over the next several years, a comprehensive inventory and monitoring program. I remained in the town of Ulaan Uul and the mountains around the Darhad for an additional eight weeks, training staff in GIS, and working with the rangers to set up a camera survey for snow leopards.

With all the rangers who have seen a wolverine, during workshop with park staff, 2014

With all the rangers who have seen a wolverine, during workshop with park staff, 2014

This summer, we will be returning to Mongolia for another round of workshops, with a focus on community-park interface, small business opportunities with a triple-bottom-line (human, environmental and financial well-being) orientation, and continuation of the programs started last year. We will be joined by staff from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and a conservation biology student from MSU. We’re working on developing an internship program that will allow Mongolian park staff and community members to travel to the US for more intensive training and exchange – perhaps even with a wolverine field research component.

Finally, I’m developing a field research program that will implement an intensive two-year wildlife survey in one of the three protected areas. The wildlife survey will be multi-species, since it makes no sense to nearly kill oneself in the backcountry for the sake of a single species – but of course, wolverines remain the animal of greatest interest to me, and closest to my heart.

So for all the work, all the excitement, all the hardship and frostbite and sweat and hunger and cold, the 2013 ski expedition gleaned a very small piece of a very large puzzle.

But wait. Did you catch that sentence where I mentioned replicate ski surveys?

Yes, those are part of the multi-species survey plan. A friend attempted to retrace our route this year – he ended up truncating it, but collected additional samples and track data, and is up for trying again next year. Despite the rigors of the endeavor, I’ve had numerous other volunteer offers. And the most important objective is to train the rangers on these techniques – whether they’re on skis, reindeer, or horseback, it’s their mountain range and their wildlife, and the fate of the Darhad and its wolverines lies with them. So as we develop a systematic monitoring protocol, we’ll be training – and learning from – them.

Two years out, that’s where we are – contemplating going back in for Mongolian wolverine ski expedition #2, and kind of relishing the thought. But this time, it will be one part of a survey that will look at wildlife populations in a much more comprehensive way. That bigger puzzle will be decoded, piece by piece.

Oh, and the collar and camera work – that’s out there too. There will be more to follow on this topic. We’ll be getting to know individual Darhad wolverines pretty well, I promise.

For making the expedition happen, I remain grateful to National Geographic and the expedition participants. Two years later, I also have to take a moment to reflect on how far the work has come. Since the expedition, certain players have shown the vision and cooperative spirit that make conservation projects like this effective. To the Wolverine Foundation for their financial, moral, and intellectual support, I’m indebted. To BioRegions and its directors, I owe great thanks for their openness to collaborating to develop a wildlife conservation focus with the parks in northern Mongolia. Sustainability is key to any ethical wildlife research project these days – there are no conservation outcomes without commitment – and BioRegions is key to achieving this. To Tumursukh, the  director of the Ulaan Taiga Protected Areas Administration, and his outstanding staff and rangers, for their hospitality, eagerness to teach and to learn, and enthusiasm for conservation – mash ikh bayarlalaa. You’re an inspiration (and I’m psyched to see that huge photo of wolverine kits on the wall of the park visitor center.) To expedition members Forrest and Jim, who have in so many ways remained supportive of my work, and who got over their initial annoyance with my very slow ski pace – sorry, guys – and went on to develop a collaborative proposal for a second, summer expedition in the service of wildlife research in the Darhad – I’d gladly have you back on any of my projects, and I hope that both of you find time in between your even more amazing adventures elsewhere to return to Mongolia. To Jason and Jeff, my wolverine guides and mentors – words in a blog post will never be adequate. I’ll see you both in the Darhad. Bring your sense of adventure. It’s only going to get better from here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mongolian Bone Crusher

This blog has served a number of purposes over the years. It’s been a place for me to document my work, keep track of research and news, formulate and share ideas about carnivore conservation, explore the cultural connections between people and wildlife on two continents, and collect wolverine sighting reports from people all over the country. I expected all of these outcomes, more or less, when I started the blog and the Mongolian Wolverine Project back in 2009.

What I did not expect was the community of friends and supporters that developed around what I’ve been writing. Devoted wolverine enthusiasts have taken the time to contact me, share their ideas and work, give me feedback, invite me to their field sites, meet up for face-to-face discussions, and in some cases even come to run half-marathons with me. Many of these people have been interested in wolverines for far longer than I have, and I’ve learned a lot – and gained a lot of energy – from my conversations with them.

Among these individuals, British artist Jeff Cain was one of the first and most consistent in sharing his interest in the species. Jeff belongs to that small and unique group of people who have the Wolverine Thing – that odd, inexplicable fascination with the species, a sort of sacred obsession that strikes particular people. He has traveled all over the world to photograph, draw, and paint them, and has shared a number of great wolverine stories with me. He is a wildlife filmmaker as well, again with a primary interest in wolverines, although he’s worked on a number of other species. He follows wolverine research attentively, and his paintings are sometimes dedicated to particular researchers and their work. His enthusiastic emails of encouragement, along with photos of wolverines and images of his artwork, always appear in my inbox shortly before I set out on any major expedition, usually at the moment when I’m starting to question the validity of what I’m doing, or worry that I don’t have what it takes, or am ready to have a minor meltdown over the physics of fitting 20 camera traps into a very small suitcase. Those emails have frequently provided the antidote to pre-expedition nerves, and I remain grateful for such long-distance support.

A detail from "Mongolian Bone Crusher." Copyright Jeff Cain.

A detail from “Mongolian Bone Crusher.” Copyright Jeff Cain.

Earlier this month, I went to the post office to find a large mailing tube with British stamps waiting for me. Inside was a print of a gorgeous painting, depicting a wolverine chewing on a boar skull in Khentii Aimag, northern Mongolia. The painting was titled “Mongolian Bone Crusher,” and the print was inscribed to me. Jeff had contacted me some time ago to tell me he was working on it, after I told him that I’d found what I referred to as a boar skull that had been chewed on by a wolverine (I was mistaken. It was a deer. At a quick glance, the skull in fragments, its ivory read as an incipient tusk. But I’m glad that the painting depicts a boar skull, because that marks it as Eurasian, and not North American.) I love the fantastic detail in this painting – the texture of the fur and the moss, the gleam in the wolverine’s eye, the way he’s crunching through those old bones and living up to his gluttonous reputation. You can win all kinds of recognition in the scientific world, but having a wolverine artist paint a picture in honor of your work feels like the best possible stamp of approval. A Jeff Cain painting of one’s wolverines is a sure indicator that one has entered the official annals of the wolverine world. I am truly honored, and can’t wait to frame and hang the work.

DSCN3459Jeff Cain’s Wolverine Artwork website highlights his work, including the Mongolian Bone Crusher and other paintings dedicated to particular research projects and researchers. I’m adding it to the permanent list of links on the blog, and encourage everyone who appreciates wildlife art to check it out. I love this work because it combines two of my great interests: wildlife science and art. It’s a conscious attempt to express the details of what we’ve learned about wolverine ecology in the medium of beautiful and meticulous painting.

This post hardly does justice to Jeff’s work, but it’s been too-long delayed by travel and a busy schedule over the past couple of weeks, so I want to get it out there. A huge thanks to Jeff, and to all the people who follow this blog, support this work, and have taken the time to share their interest, ideas, and creative work. You are the best!

 

Wolverine Presentation in Massachusetts on Thursday

A quick post – I’ll be giving a talk on wolverines in Southborough, Massachusetts, on Thursday, April 16th, at 7:30 pm. The presentation will be held at the Southborough Community House, 28 Main St, and is free and open to the public, made possible through a grant from the Southborough Community Fund and the sponsorship of the Southborough Open Land Foundation – a great group with a staff committed to local land and wildlife conservation.

This is the first time that I’ll be speaking in Massachusetts (anywhere in New England, in fact) and the first time I’ll be giving a talk far outside of wolverine range, so I’m excited to introduce the species to an audience who might be less familiar with it. I’m looking forward to a conversation about wildlife in a community where the understanding of issues such as the Endangered Species Act, public lands, and carnivore conservation is so different to the understanding of such issues out West.

I was born and raised in Massachusetts, and the emphasis placed on the idea of common good, intellectual pursuit, and the (occasionally stodgy) necessity of being precautionary about resources of all kinds has had a lasting effect on my sense of environmental ethics. So has the idea of something owed to the wider world, which, in the minds of my ancestors, probably revolved around the good behavior owed to a supreme deity, but which over time has evolved into a secular orientation towards service and reciprocity towards whatever entities, environmental or societal, have been good to you. (Jonathan Franzen recently wrote about his own fusion of New England Puritanism and environmental ethics in The New Yorker. His is not a cheery picture, and Grist made a worthwhile rebuttal to his general premise about climate change and conservation outcomes, but the brief point about the kinship between the New England and the environmentalist sense of responsibility resonated with me.) It will be good to speak to the home crowd. And despite our chilly Puritan roots, I expect that it will be a fun evening. So please drop by if you are in the area. Hope to see you there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mongolian Archaeology Presentation in Bozeman

A brief divergence from wolverines: my friend and colleague, Dr. Julia Clark, will be giving a talk next Thursday, March 5th, about her archaeological work in the Darhad Valley. The talk is at 5 pm at the Bozeman Public Library’s small conference room, and it’s free and open to the public. The event is hosted by BioRegions International, the project that I work with in Mongolia.

MongolianArchaeology

Julia did her dissertation on the transition between hunter-gatherer and herding lifestyles during Mongolia’s Bronze Age, between 5000 and 3000 years ago, with a focus on the Darhad region, which is also where my work is currently based. She’s the first woman to lead an international archaeological expedition in Mongolia, and she single-handedly facilitated multiple years of field camp that gave learning opportunities to Mongolian and American archaeology students alike. She’s also been a great supporter in various ways, including some fun field time, and a briefly exhilarating suggestion that she had unearthed a Bronze Age wolverine jaw bone (it turned out to be a fox, but it’s the thought that counts.) She also introduced me to a Mongolian guy who, several weeks later, on the other side of the country, in an entirely coincidental moment, happened to save me and my entire party from our vehicle, which was stuck in a raging river and rapidly filling with water. Long story, but I would probably still be stranded in Hovd if not for Julia and her archaeology connections. So I encourage you all to come out for the talk if you have the chance. Hope to see you there!

And if you are interested in volunteering with her project, you can find details on the application process here.

Wolverines in the Times, a New Children’s Book, and Ms. Wolverine on Crushes

First up, wolverines got a mention in the New York Times last Sunday, as part of an article about the increasing pressure put on outdoor and natural spaces by non-motorized recreation. The article makes a valid point about the way we tend to point fingers at industrial and corporate environmental malfeasance, without considering that our cumulative impact on the places we celebrate might be just as great simply by walking or skiing through them. Still, some degree of communion with nature is necessary to keep people interested in protecting the environment, and there’s ever-increasing evidence that being outdoors helps mental as well as physical health. So there’s a strong incentive not to place a lot of restrictions on people’s capacity to get outdoors.

The bigger problem is demographic – if you keep making more people, they’ll have an exponentially greater effect on the environment, in all ways, both through industrial destruction of resources, and by loving nature to death. No one will touch this topic in a meaningful way – we live in an absurdly pro-natal society, culturally and to a large extent legally, so I’ll take the opportunity to soap-box a bit: if you’re at all disinclined to have kids, just don’t. I hear a lot of talk in the vein of “I’d better have a baby now because if I don’t I might regret it later,” which seems like crazy reasoning to me. No kid should know that s/he was produced as an insurance against later regret, rather than out of a sincere desire to have a child. Likewise, having kids shouldn’t be a matter of meeting a cultural expectation. Do it if you sincerely want to bring another person into the world and are committed and able to provide the financial, emotional, and intellectual resources to give it a worthwhile life.

Not that I have anything against people who have kids (unless they have excessive numbers….then it starts to get annoying), but in a culture where we’re told that we will inevitably end up with them, I’m reinforcing the fact that you can indeed just opt out and go do something more to your liking, something that might make better use of your talents, if you don’t feel interested in parenthood.

If you do feel like parenthood is for you, however, here’s something that your child must have: a new illustrated children’s book about wolverines, by Suzanne Stutzman. The book is called Send Me a Box of Wolverines, and it’s about the natural history and potential recolonization or reintroduction of the species to Colorado. Although I haven’t seen a copy, the illustrations look fun, and $1 of each sale will be donated to the Wolverine Foundation.  You can order it on the author’s website. Who wouldn’t want a box of wolverines? But since that would likely wreak some havoc, this may be the next best thing.

And now Ms. Wolverine has some words about crushes.

gulocrush

 

Dear Ms. Wolverine,

I have a crush on a guy who doesn’t seem to notice me. I really like him but I’m too shy to talk to him. How do I get his attention? I want him to understand that I am cool like a wolverine.

Sincerely,

Sad

Dear Sad,

Crushes are annoying. They consume a lot of time and energy and usually they are based on projections instead of real compatibility or actual connections. Most of the time they don’t work out, and you are better off doing something more useful with your time than moping around about it. I hope that doesn’t seem mean and insensitive, but remember – I’m a wolverine. Kindness and sensitivity are not my strong points.

But if you really want advice on coping with a crush, the first thing you have to do is figure out whether you and this guy are actually the same species.

I bring this up because after I dispersed I found myself a nice territory. It was beautiful. High peaks, lovely meadows, rushing streams, lots of prey. There were no other wolverines around, which was both a good and a bad thing. It was good because it meant I didn’t have to fight anyone for my territory. It was bad because I started developing crushes on guys who were not wolverines.

First there was the mountain goat. He had such big, beautiful eyes, and he had such defined, muscular, juicy legs. His back was also pretty attractive. I followed him around everywhere, just admiring those muscles. But things ended badly. I probably shouldn’t go into details. It turns out that my fascination with him was not terribly healthy. For him.

Never mind. Moving on.

Next there was a bear. He looked a little like a wolverine, but bigger. He was also really mean, all the time. Since wolverines have a reputation for being badass, I thought maybe I could be like him. I followed him around for a while trying to figure out how he’d become so big and impressive, even though he tried to severely injure me every time I attempted to flirt with him over a carcass. Maybe he knew I wasn’t as interested in him as I was in the carcass? Also, abusive guys are just bad news. Don’t ever pursue a crush on a guy who growls or swats at you. After a while, I thought, why bother trying to be big and intimidating when I can just go on being small and intimidating? So I chased him off a carcass one day and discovered he was sort of a wimp. Then he went into hibernation for the winter and I realized that there was no way I’d be willing (or able) to transform myself into a bear. Who wants to sleep through the best season?! Bears are lame.

My biggest crush was the wolf. He hung out with such a cool crowd! I wanted to be like them. They were always hunting together and hanging out in a pack and acting cooperatively to raise their cubs. The wolf was really nice, too. I think he was actually kind of impressed with my attitude, which just made me have an even bigger crush. He didn’t seem to mind when I dragged off a piece of his kill now and then. Eventually we started talking over carcasses, but only when his cool friends weren’t around. Whenever they showed up, he’d tell me it was better to leave because they probably wouldn’t like me. Eventually he dispersed from his pack and while he was on his own, we hung out a lot and had some great conversations. Such a nice guy. But the more we talked and the closer we became as friends, the more I realized that we could never be a couple. He wanted to hang out all the time, like the pack animal he is, and I’m an introvert, so I needed more time to myself. He’s a wolf, and I’m a wolverine. Things don’t work that way. He eventually met a mate and seemed to be pretty happy with her. I think she’s kind of a bitch, but maybe wolves go for that. Anyway, we are still friends and I’m so glad I evolved past the crush stage.

I don’t want it to seem like I spent all my time having hopeless crushes, because most of the time I was just happy to be running around in the mountains and finding food. And also there were some weird cross-species crushes where I was the object – for example, the humans who used to follow me around and leave big wooden boxes of beaver as gifts. They even gave me a necklace, but it was ugly, and they also started putting up cameras to take my picture, which I felt was sort of creepy and stalker-esque. Anyway I knew it would never work out because humans and wolverines are too different, and eventually they lost interest and went away.

But then one day I started coming across intriguing scent markings, and then I ran into this guy and I instantly knew that he was a wolverine just like me. It was love at first sight, and it was totally different from a crush.

So that’s why I say that you have to make sure he’s the same species. In your case, it’s more a metaphorical thing than a real biological thing, but some people are compatible based on genuine similarities in character and interests, while others may seem really fascinating because they have characteristics that are so different and intriguing, and that you yourself may want to possess. In the latter case, however, it frequently turns out that you are just too tough for someone who won’t appreciate that toughness, or you’re trying to be something you don’t actually want to be. Or maybe you’re drawn to something that means that you and the person in question would be great friends, but not necessarily great partners.

And when you meet someone who is ‘your own species,’ in the metaphorical sense, they will also immediately think that you are really awesome too. That’s the great, ego-boosting thing that happens in these situations.

If this guy hasn’t even noticed you yet, there’s no way that you’ve gotten to a point where you can tell whether you’re the same species, so you have two options: 1) Stop worrying about it and do something more constructive with your time, or 2) Talk to him and assess why you have a crush on him, and whether you actually get along. It will do no good to demonstrate to him that you are “cool like a wolverine” if he turns out to be a bear. Or a mountain goat. Anyway, just talk to him and be normal about it, and see what happens.

Good luck!

Ms. Wolverine

Happy Tsagaan Sar, and Ms. Wolverine on Coping With Snow

Today is the Mongolian Lunar New Year, marking the beginning of the Year of the Wood Sheep. Here is a little synopsis of what lies in store, from the American Center for Mongolian Studies:

The year of the Sheep year is seen as a time for healing and stability after the chaos of 2014’s Horse year.
This year is the year of the Wood Sheep or Goat. The year is symbolized by the color green, meaning new growth and renewal. The main theme for the next 13 months should be on intimacy, family and close friendships. It is a year to develop a gentle heart and open acceptance on all levels. 
Another aspect of the wood sheep is creativity; it is a time for art and the cultivation of beauty. The year of the sheep is a time to pick a direction and not give up or become discouraged because Sheep can only move forward! 
With this in mind, we encourage all to renew old academic relationships, seek out new opportunities for collaboration, commit to your research goals for the year, and publish as much as they can.
Ms. Wolverine adds, “The Year of the Sheep is bound to be a good year, because sheep are tasty.”
gulotsagaansar

Traditionally, Mongolians greet their elders with blue khatag scarves as part of the New Year celebration.

 

On that note, our second missive to Ms. Wolverine deals with something that wolverines are especially equipped to advise on: snow.

 

Dear Ms. Wolverine,
I don’t have a relationship question, but I am looking for advice dealing with all the snow we’ve received in the North East. How do you maneuver through snow pack? How often do you go outside and face the elements, and how do you not get frustrated with it? I fear this winter may break many of the primates back east—whether they are trying to entertain their young, train for a marathon, or just get to work. Please advise….

-Snowbound in MA

Dear Snowbound,

First things first: can I move in with you? Our snow out here in the Rockies is pitiful this year. Here’s a fun real-time snow map that allows you to keep track of snow cover all over the country. You will note that the entire northeast currently looks like an ice-cap. We still have a fair amount of snow in the mountains, but the weather is so warm that the trees are budding and the crocuses blooming. I’m concerned. We may have to consider a mass migration.

Now, on to how to survive extreme snow conditions.

Here’s the thing: you are a human. Humans evolved in Africa where there is not a lot of snow. Therefore you are not naturally equipped to cope with these conditions – unlike the far better adapted wolverine. We have nice thick fur coats that keep us warm down to -40° F. You may also have noticed that we have gigantic feet. Wolverines, like humans, are plantigrade walkers, which means that we walk with our heels on the ground. Bears do this too. Animals in the cat and dog family walk on their toes; they are digigrade animals. Plantigrade walking is far superior in snowy conditions because you have greater surface area to support your weight. This is why wolverines can bound along in snowbound regions, while animals like wolves have more difficulty. Possibly this helps explain why we wolverines do so well in snowy regions: our competition is seasonally excluded. Importantly, too, ungulates have difficulty in deep snow conditions, which gives us an advantage that sometimes helps keep us fed, especially when those stranded ungulates are already weakened by winter conditions. But I digress. Back to the point: Even though you humans also walk plantigrade, you only have two feet, and they are not that large when you take into consideration your relative body weight. So you will sadly never be able to be as elegant or efficient in the snow as a wolverine.

I know, however, that you have that amazing capacity to substitute things made with your little monkey hands for all the natural gifts that you seem to be lacking, so I suggest that you acquire some of those fake snow feet that you people have invented – either skis or snowshoes – and put those on. Then you’ll be able to move around more easily in the snow. By “going to work,” I assume you mean “finding food,” so these items will help you corner those stranded ungulates I mentioned above. I’d recommend that you get some of those detachable claw things – arrows? bullets? – to help you dispatch them, though, because your teeth are also pretty pitiful.

Likewise, I suggest that if you are in training for a marathon, you figure out how to use skiing as a partial substitute for running. I know the impact on the muscles is different, but from what I have seen, the cardio workout can be just as good. Snow provides its own opportunities for being a great athlete. Also, you have those treadmill things, and even if you don’t like them, I suggest that seven feet of snow on the ground might constitute adequate extenuating circumstances for adopting the practice, if you insist on running.

As for entertaining your kits, here’s something fun that you can do that will help prepare them for survival as adults: take all your food out of that funny freezer thing in your house, and bury it in various snowbanks here and there in your yard. Then test your kits’ ability to sniff it out. If they can’t do it quickly, frankly they are going to need some serious help surviving in the future. If they can find it all within a reasonable time, they’re doing well, and when they disperse, you’ll know you’ve helped give them a good education.

Aside from that, though, snow is a lot of fun for adults and kits alike. You asked how often we go outside – I don’t know if you are aware of this, but we actually live outside. We only go inside when we want to destroy a cabin or something. We spend all our time outside and are experts on snow activities. So here are some other things that you can do, either on your own just for fun, or with your kits: Ski. Snowshoe. Build a snow den. Build a gigantic wolverine out of snow. Find some icefalls and climb them really fast. Find a mountain and do the same. Establish territories and have a snowball war in which you try to keep the other wolverines….I mean, the other humans out of your territory. This is also great practice for adulthood. Track wildlife – this is much more fun in the snow! Find a long hill and slide down it. Run back up and do it again. Repeat until you are hungry and need to go retrieve some food from the snowbanks in your backyard. 

Seriously, snow is fun. Especially for kids, who don’t have to stress out about “going to work” yet. Don’t be afraid to send your kits out and let them enjoy it. They will have great memories. And find ways to appreciate this unique winter even if you are an adult. Maybe it’s an opportunity to get out and about by new means, see things in a new way, and gain a new perspective on the human place in the natural world.

I know that people in New England and especially in Boston are very stressed out about all the snow. My final admonition is this: Remember that Mother Nature is the boss. Your trains aren’t running on time because you got seven feet of snow? People’s roofs are collapsing? Those hives of human activity called ‘cities’ are basically shut down? What did you expect? Welcome to climate change. It’s going to wreak havoc on my home….and probably yours. We’re in this together.

Tell me your address, and when you stash all that food in the snowbanks for your kits, be sure to include some moose, a bit of deer, maybe a beaver or two….I’ll be along once I run my own cross-country ultra marathon to reach my new home.

See you soon!

Ms. Wolverine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ms. Wolverine on Co-Sleeping With Your Kits

Yes, I’ve been really, really horrible at sticking to a schedule with this blog. Since Wolverine Birthday fell on a weekend, I made a decision to turn the computer off for a change and spend time outdoors doing real things. When you’re primarily self-employed, you run a huge risk of creating a never-ending work cycle, much of which involves sitting in front of a screen. This is even worse when you work with colleagues across multiple time zones. Sometimes I find myself emerging from a haze of communication with various parties only to discover it’s 2:00 a.m. and I still have some other deadline to meet before the sun rises. You have to draw a line somewhere, so I decided that it would be a mostly screen-free weekend.

So first: Happy (belated – though since there’s variation in actual birth days, it’s probably all okay) Wolverine Birthday! Here is an image of congratulations to all the wolverine mothers out there. Also the wolverine fathers, but they are out getting food or patrolling territory, so didn’t make it into the picture.

DSCN3440Now to give the stage to Ms. Wolverine, who has been taking questions from those faced with problems or difficulties for which a wolverine might have particular insight. Many thanks to all who submitted their various quandaries. Of course, I want to issue a little disclaimer here: as you probably discern by her name, Ms. Wolverine is a wolverine. Her advice may or may not actually be appropriate for humans to follow. Please use your judgement. For example, I would not personally encourage my friends to evict their children from home at age two. So please bear in mind that what is appropriate for Gulo gulo may not be for Homo sapiens. You will, however, definitely learn a bit about wolverine life history.

And now – our first question is from a new mom. Ms. Wolverine thought that this was the appropriate query to answer first, in honor of Wolverine Birthday.

Dear Ms. Wolverine,
We co-sleep with our baby. Whenever Mama leaves his side, he wakes up and fusses. How will we ever have sex again?
-Anonymous
Dear Anonymous,
When your kits are very young, they are demanding. This is a difficult time for new parents, but especially for new moms. Your kit depends on you for everything, and all of your attention must be devoted to attending to its needs. Pretty soon your fur is matted, you’re covered in baby scat, your den is a mess, you can barely get out the door to hunt up a pika, never mind scavenge a juicy bighorn sheep or mountain goat, and then you’re faced with the need to dig out a new den to move your kits out of the messy natal den, which is just a big pain – in short, you’re totally exhausted by the energetic demands of having brought a kit to term and, after the birth, nursing it and taking care of it. Nursing in particular is very energetically demanding, and it stresses us all out, and it makes our minds and bodies do weird things, and changes our priorities. So this is a challenging adjustment for parents who are not used to being tied down by biological needs other than their own.
While your kit is this small, of course he is going to need to sleep with you. You have to keep him warm, safe, and fed. But cheer up, because pretty soon your kit will not be this small. In a few months he will be independently mobile, and you can encourage him to leave your side from time to time and explore on his own. Also, once he is finished nursing, it is no longer necessary to sleep beside him. Even if he fusses now when you leave his side, you can encourage your kit, as he gets older and more capable of logic, to see that the world is a big and interesting place and that some independent exploration and time alone are good things. This will be easier when he can do something other than lie there flailing around and mewling – when he can crawl, hold things with his paws, and chew on bones or scraps of hide, he will be more distractable and less inclined to notice you are gone. 
Also, sometimes we are inclined to be very protective and overly involved with every aspect of a kit’s life, and keep it with us all the time, but the point of having a kit is to allow it to experience the world on its own, disperse, establish its own territory, and, hopefully, successfully reproduce in order to pass on your genes and sustain the population. So it’s good to begin to encourage some independence early. At an appropriate time, you can perhaps just leave the den for a bit while the kit is sleeping, even if he whimpers and fusses for a while. He will learn to take in more of his surroundings instead of just looking for you, and this will serve him well, because if he grows up and is still just waiting for his mom to take care of him, and looking around all the time for her, it will be very easy for him to miss the mountain lion or wolf sneaking up on him to kill him.
By June or July, when mating season begins, your kit will be full size and you can task him with going to hunt a squirrel or something, and then hope that he is still hunting the squirrel when you encounter your mate on one of his and your overlapping territorial patrols. Then you can have sex without kit interference.
Oh wait. I forgot. Human mating season is perpetual.
Here’s my suggestion if you want to have sex before official mating season: does your kit nap? Do you always nap with him? If there is any time when your kit is asleep on his own, track down your mate and have sex then, even if it is in the middle of the day in some strange location. Who knows, it might make things more interesting and compensate for the lack of frequency by substituting… variety? Creativity? I’m a wolverine, I don’t know for sure how all this works with humans. I think it’s logical to have a mating season and to keep it separate from intensive-small-kit-rearing season. But I surmise that since you are social animals, you need to maintain your bonds with your mate, and that more frequent sex allows this and thereby benefits the ultimate success of your family, your kit, and your species. So therefore I encourage you to be creative about time and location. As an alternative, since you are social animals with extensive social networks, see if one of your close friends or relatives could watch your kit for a little while at their den if he absolutely refuses to nap without you. Social animals like being cooperative about helping raise each other’s babies, especially if they are from the same community; just look at wolves. Although if you do ask one of your friends to watch your kit, I encourage you not to go into detail as to why, because she probably does not need to know. 
Aside from that, though, don’t forget that being a new mother is full of all kinds of challenges, but that you are going to do fine at figuring them all out. Taking good care of your kit is not the hardest part; if you have any maternal instinct, which I know you do, you’ll be good at it. The difficult bit is figuring out how to stop being too involved at critical points, and fostering the independence they need to become successful autonomous adults – which will give you the time you need to reconnect with your mate. We generally make it clear to our kits that they need to disperse before age two – it’s necessary, but so hard to know that you are sending them out to possibly die in search of their own territory. Such are the emotional travails of motherhood.
Good luck!
Ms. Wolverine