Scents and Sensibility

In a talus field in the Altai mountains of Mongolia this summer, I entertained a bemused friend and a local herder by  crawling underneath every large boulder in a three kilometer radius to look for scat. The herder had informed me that this particular mountain was “the place where wolverines raise their families.” We rode three horses – mine was the ornery one, of course – precariously up the mountain and then, confronted with an infinity of scattered stone, I  went out of my head with some form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that compelled me to look everywhere that a female wolverine might have denned. The wind was blowing, the temperature hovered near freezing, and I felt like my ears and fingers were about to fall off. After several hours – the herder used the time to climb to the one spot in dozens of kilometers that had cell-phone reception, and called his girlfriend – I finally located a pile of dessicated scat. My friend snapped photos while I sat and stared at the pile of crap, an inner debate raging: pick it up, or leave it? Was it wolverine, or not?

There was no way to tell. At risk of grossing out my readers, I did pick it up (with gloves) and put it in my pocket (securely wrapped in paper and a plastic bag), and after several days I began to smell like a wolverine, although that may have had as much to do with hanging out among livestock and not showering for two weeks as it did to do with the specimen. Nevertheless, there was something peculiarly pungent about that scat. I was convinced that it was wolverine – what other carnivore would leave a pile of scat underneath a talus boulder? Still, my nose wasn’t truly good enough to tell.

Fortunately, there are creatures out there with better noses than humans’ and they are able to distinguish among scats. An interesting piece about conservation dogs appeared last week in the Los Angeles Times, mentioning wolverine work in the Blackfoot Valley of Montana. Working Dogs for Conservation trains dogs to find wildlife scat, with a much greater success rate than that enjoyed by biologists who try to do the same thing without canine aid. As the wildlife biology world moves towards non-invasive approaches to monitoring wildlife populations, techniques like this gain in importance, particularly for those species that are elusive and difficult to monitor using traditional means. The wolverine is certainly the emblem of “difficult” when it comes to research, and my dilemma on the mountain illustrates the potential usefulness of having a keen canine nose on your side. I’m not sure how well it might work, but it’s certainly an interesting idea, and I look forward to hearing more about whether this could provide a new tool for gulo research.

I’ve always been impressed and inspired by wolverine biologists, and I was glad that the commitment and tenacity of researchers came through in the recent PBS wolverine documentary. I occasionally enjoy gently mocking my wolverine folks – and myself – for what we’re willing to put ourselves through to study the species.  But I was disappointed to read a film review in the Miami Herald suggesting that we’re all “loopy” “goofy,” and “daffy” for our devotion to the species.  And I was particularly disappointed that the review perpetuated the idea that wolverines are ferocious and, as the author puts it, would “as soon eat [wolverine biologists’] eyeballs as look at them.” Wolverines are not dangerous to humans unless you back one into a corner and start poking at it with a stick – in which case, you could well be considered loopy. If you are fortunate enough to see a wolverine in the wild, and it comes running towards you, it’s not interested in attacking you – it’s probably interested in seeing what you are. Curiosity is a weasel trait, after all. Again, I wouldn’t try to pet one, and if one did start acting aggressive, I’d back off, but they’re not out to get you.

On that note, my sister and I were hiking in Grand Teton National Park two weeks ago when we heard a tremendous shrieking noise from up the hill. I climbed into the rocks to see if I could find the source of the noise. Suddenly, from beneath a boulder a few feet away, a short-tailed weasel in winter white shot out towards me. It stopped, looked at me, and then danced towards me, staring at me with cool ferocity – all 10 ounces of it poised against my 110 pounds – and then scampered off up the hill. Ten seconds later, another, smaller weasel emerged, glanced at me with that same unconcern, and tore off after the first weasel. The second weasel returned a minute later, gave me another look, and retreated under the boulder, but continued to gaze out at me. There is something decidedly disconcerting about a small animal that acts so counter-intuitively towards something 100 times its size. Perhaps that’s part of what makes weasels so enduring – the sheer unexpectedness of the approach helps keep them safe from predators who expect them to run away. But it also gives them an undeserved reputation for evil intentions and devilish possession. Those weasels, like their larger cousins, were just trying to figure out what a gigantic human was doing in their territory.  I’m lifting a quote from The Wolverine Foundation’s website to accompany this picture of the second weasel:

Short-tailed weasel, Grand Teton National Park, November 2010

“Picture a weasel — and most of us can do that, for we have met that little demon of destruction, that small atom of insensate courage, that symbol of slaughter, sleeplessness, and tireless, incredible activity — picture that scrap of demoniac fury, multiply that mite some fifty times, and you have the likeness of a Wolverine.”

Ernest Thompson Seton
“Lives of Game Animals”. 1925 – 1928. Vol. II

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