Back in the days when the world believed nothing but ill of wolverines – that they were nasty, smelly, anti-social animals intent on wreaking havoc on various human enterprises – male gulos had a reputation as infanticidal villains who would kill their own kits in the den. Scandinavians reported instances of male wolverines entering dens in their territories and killing the babies, which made no sense from an evolutionary perspective, but which fit the wider perception of the species.
Not until the Glacier National Park project did that perception begin to change. Jeff Copeland, Rick Yates, and the project volunteers observed male wolverines visiting dens – but apparently just to socialize with their families (author Doug Chadwick speculates that they might also bring their mates food, but this hasn’t been observed.) Males in the Glacier study also traveled with their juvenile kits of both sexes, showing them how to survive in a harsh landscape before the kits dispersed. This was gratifying to wolverine lovers, and it also made a lot more sense to those who believe in a rational universe. Why put all of the effort into reproducing if you’re just going to kill your own offspring? A caring gulo dad made much more sense than a homicidal one. Observations of kit-killing in Scandinavia may have involved males taking over territories of other males that had died; the destruction of young by interloping males is fairly common among mammals, and would make sense for gulos in Scandinavia, where hunting levels have traditionally been high and wolverine turnover through a given territory would also have been high. Towards their own kits, however, wolverines appear to be attentive fathers.
The wolverine’s change in status from bad dad to good was welcome, and the new narrative has caught on quickly. It was highlighted in the PBS documentary and in Doug Chadwick’s book, and now the wolverine has made Scientific American’s list of the top eight fathers in the animal kingdom. I’m pleased, but I can’t help but reflect on the fact that this new animal superdad comes at a convenient time in American history. He and the mate share duties and spend some quality time together (M57 and F3 seemed to be traveling together frequently during 2009 and 2010; she came to visit him when he was in one of the live traps), but most of the time they’re busy independently roaming around and making a living. He’s not an overbearing patriarch, he’s a cool guy who hangs out, takes the kids out on adventures when mom is busy, and maintains a meaningful relationship with his offspring during their adolescence. I’m not sure that Americans of a century ago could have appreciated this particular picture of the nuclear family as a constellation of individuals maintaining their independence while also retaining family ties. But to those of us who wish our dads a happy father’s day via google phone from Mongolia, for example, or spend months away from our male companions in order to pursue our work or our research, or insist on equal childrearing duties – or who simply want our mates to be incredibly badass and rad – the picture of wolverine family life seems suspiciously familiar.
So this comes a little bit late, but Happy Father’s Day to all of the gulo fathers out there, and thanks for the inspiration. The wolverine life cycle is marked by American holidays; kits are born around Valentine’s Day and weaned around Mother’s Day, which is neatly symbolic. We can’t say this for sure, but we can imagine that by Father’s Day, wolverines are beginning a summer of hanging out with dad – that as I write, M57 and his kits are cruising the snowfields at the cool, shaded bases of cliffs somewhere in the Absarokas, that the kits are chasing each other and wrestling until M57 stops suddenly, catching the scent of something beneath the snow. That the kits are attentive now as he starts to dig, unearthing the carcass of a goat that slipped from the cliff back in February. That they will remember the strategy of following cliff bands, the scent of meat eight feet below the surface, and the particular way that he digs it out, and that these things that their dad teaches them will help them survive in a rough world.