Territoriality in Female Wolverines

For reasons that I’ll get into in a future post, I feel suddenly compelled to write up a quick literature review on the topic of territoriality in female wolverines.

Let’s get this out of the way immediately: female wolverines are territorial. This is evident throughout the recent literature. Out of concern for the safety of resident adult wolverines in the US, researchers generally don’t publish maps of wolverine home ranges, but anyone who has had the chance to look at the minimum convex polygons of study animals can see a pretty clear pattern. Adult female wolverines don’t overlap with other adult female wolverines. The territorial boundaries are pretty strict, often down a drainage that both animals will approach and traverse, but that neither will cross. There are instances of incursions and small amounts of overlap, but this is generally less than 2% of any female’s home range. Adult males are also territorial, but with varying degrees of territorial incursion or excursion. The territoriality of wolverines is one of the most important factors for understanding wolverine distribution, their natural rarity, and, importantly, conservation concerns and strategies as we look at a warming world.

Strictly speaking, a territory is a patch of ground that an animal defends, and a home range is a patch of ground that an animal occupies and uses for subsistence. In the wolverine research community, including in published papers, these terms are used in a conflating fashion, although some papers do make a distinction. In presentations and talks and casual conversation, we often use the words “home range” to refer to the area that a wolverine (male or female) occupies, but we mean this as a defended home range, which is actually a territory.

Territoriality in the Literature

While the territoriality of wolverines is widely understood at this point, I was surprised to note that there are few American or Canadian papers or book chapters that deal explicitly with the question of how territoriality functions, or the ways in which it potentially limits population in areas of restricted habitat where the population fragments into a meta-population structure. The Scandinavians, on the other hand, do tend to deal with territoriality, probably because the management imperatives are more urgent in places where depredation on domestic reindeer is a major problem. A Norwegian master’s thesis from 2014 looks at genetic sampling as a method to determine territoriality, in comparison to GPS collar data. Jens Persson’s dissertation deals in some depth with possible explanations for territoriality, and how those explanations may differ between males and females. Proving that the Scandinavians more or less own this topic, a 2017 thesis by Malin Aronsson closely focuses on the dynamics of territoriality and dispersal among female wolverines (and lynx). But the territoriality of the species is taken for granted in most publications, especially the North American publications.

I was also reminded of the absence of peer-reviewed publications focusing specifically on several of the major American wolverine research projects. Doug Chadwick’s popular-science book The Wolverine Way remains the best published account of the Glacier wolverine project. The Rocky Mountain Research Station has put out a number of impressive papers that draw on the Glacier data to ask large-scale questions about habitat relationships, population genetics, dispersal, and climate change effects, but the annual project reports remain the best source of information for the park population itself. The same is true of the Absaroka-Beartooth project, the project with which I got my start in the wolverine world, working as a volunteer. Peer-reviewed papers for that project were somewhat limited by the low numbers of detected wolverines within the study area – sample sizes and statistics being the perennial priority for most journals these days – but the eerie emptiness of prime modeled wolverine habitat deserves some consideration, hopefully in future publications.

Back in 1981, Hornocker et al published a study asserting that wolverines were not territorial. This was one of the earliest studies of wolverines in the lower 48, lasting from 1972-1977, on the Flathead National Forest. It was a telemetry study in which the researchers observed overlap among many different wolverines, and concluded that wolverines were tolerant of fellow wolverines. They reported “no intraspecific strife” and discussed how a wounded female wolverine, whose injuries they first attributed to another wolverine, were likely caused by a mountain lion. (Despite assertions that wolverines are not territorial, the home range maps that are included in this paper do show a familiar pattern – two male wolverines who don’t overlap, one female wolverine who sticks to a fairly tight home range, and a second female, overlapping the first, who makes wider movements that include the home range of the male who overlaps the first female. If I were to guess, many years later, what was up with this scenario, I’d suggest a male-female pair and their juvenile daughter, preparing to disperse. The second male looks like an unrelated individual as his range does not overlap with any of the other animals.) Earlier observational studies of wolverines, and books about the species, also fail to make note of territorial behavior. The same is largely true for the Mongolian hunters and herders who I interviewed; they were well aware of the wolverine’s rarity and ability to travel over long distances, but only a few noted that a wolverine would reappear in a particular spot at intervals. None of those interviewees made a leap to territoriality as an explanation, but some did refer (maybe jokingly) to a wolverine’s nutag, which is a Mongolian concept denoting an individual’s homeland.

Home range maps showing seasonal movements for four wolverines in NW Montana, from Hornocker et al 1981

Home range maps for four wolverines in NW Montana, showing seasonal movements, from Hornocker et al 1981

Observation, track surveys, and radio telemetry, of course, are limited in important ways. These methods allow glimpses of an animal only at the moments when the observer or listener happens to have their eyes or telemetry antenna trained on the animal. Finding dens is more difficult, which – in the absence of DNA techniques – makes understanding relatedness more difficult as well. With the advent of GPS collars and DNA analysis, we were able to observe wolverines more closely and consistently. Hundreds of locations for multiple animals, taken over months, in combination with VHF locations over the course of years, made the territorial behavior of the species clear. Den locations and kit collaring showed that wolverines will tolerate their own offspring within their territories for up to two years after birth. This could account for Hornocker’s and others’ observations of multiple wolverines sharing the same home range, and photos like those that Igor Shpilenok took in Kamchatka, of up to six wolverines on a bear carcass at the same time.

The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Yellowstone Wolverine Project likewise relied on annual reports and white papers to convey results for many years. The project director, Bob Inman, was in the process of getting his PhD, so his dissertation eventually yielded several published papers. Again, though, these deal mostly with larger-scale questions about habitat relationships and conservation priorities. Several of his papers do discuss territoriality, but again, for obvious reasons, most of the published papers don’t include home range maps.

What all of these papers and sources do include, however, is an assumption that territoriality is important. Some imply territoriality; for example, in a summary of draft papers from 2007, the WCS project notes in the abstract for a chapter on wolverine space use:

Mean annual (1 Mar–28 Feb) 95% fixed kernel home range size was 453 km2 for adult females (n = 15 wolverine years) and 1,160 km2 for adult males (n = 13 wolverine-years). Mean percent area overlap of same-sex adults was < 1% (SE = 0.00, range = 0–2%, n = 12 pairs) using annual 100% minimum convex polygon home ranges.

The “<1% overlap” suggests territoriality, although it’s not explicitly stated here. In a 2012 review of wolverine reproductive chronology, however, Inman et al do note this:

Throughout its distribution, the wolverine displays extremely large home ranges, territoriality, low densities, and low reproductive rates (Copeland 1996; Inman et al. 2012; Krebs et al. 2007; Lofroth and Krebs 2007; Magoun 1985; Mattisson et al. 2011a; Persson et al. 2006, 2010). These adaptations are necessary for exploiting a cold, low-productivity niche where growing seasons are brief and food resources are limited (Inman et al. 2012).”  

Another 2012 Inman et al paper on spatial ecology does deal explicitly with the question of territoriality vs. undefended home ranges and is probably the most extensive discussion of this topic in the literature on wolverines in the lower 48. This paper does include some home range maps, with the locations stripped out.

Spatial distribution patterns of the Mustelidae are typically described as intra-sexual territoriality, where only home ranges of opposite sexes overlap (Powell 1979). Wolverine-specific reports exist for both intra-sexual territoriality (Magoun 1985, Copeland 1996, Hedmark et al. 2007, Persson et al. 2010) and for a high degree of spatial overlap but with temporal separation (Hornocker et al. 1983). Arguments against territoriality by wolverines include the lack of ability to defend such a large home range (Koehler et al. 1980). Our data on movement rates in relation to home range size, temporal development of the home range, minimal overlap of same-sex adults, and relatively immediate shifts upon a death suggest that wolverines are capable of patrolling a large territory and provide further support for intra-sexual territoriality. Reproductive success is closely correlated to the amount of energy that a female wolverine can obtain (Persson 2005), and for predators that are capable of individually acquiring prey, the presence of conspecifics reduces foraging efficiency (Sandell 1989). Since wolverines feed on individually obtainable prey and occupy relatively unproductive habitats, it follows that behaviors for maintaining exclusive access to resources would likely have selective advantage. Frequent marking behavior (Pulliainen and Ovaskainen 1975, Koehler et al. 1980) is likely part of an adaptive strategy that involves maintenance of exclusive territories within sexes so that feeding and breeding opportunities are monopolized by dominant individuals and their immediate offspring.

Female wolverine territories in Wyoming, with takeover of one home range by a female kit after the death of the resident adult female. From Inman et al 2012

The Scandinavian literature is also rife with references to territoriality among both male and female wolverines. Jens Persson, who works on wolverines in Sweden, reflects in his dissertation on the reasons for territorial behavior in female wolverines, and concludes that it’s related both to food, and also potentially to the need to protect kits against infanticide. Historically, it was widely believed that male wolverines would kill any kits they encountered, even their own; this has since been proven false, but the idea that males kill unrelated kits persists. Persson is the first researcher I’m aware of to suggest that female territoriality may actually be a defense against other females intent on infanticide.

Females could also gain from infanticide by eliminating non-related progeny to decrease future competition for territories or denning areas for her and her progeny. In addition, the death of an unrelated infant could also reduce the net reproductive success of a competitor (Hrdy & Hausfater, 1984). Competition for territories determine dispersal behaviour in female wolverines (Paper IV), suggesting that there is strong competition for territories among female wolverines.

 Wolff and Peterson (1998) hypothesized that a primary function of female territoriality in solitary mammals could be to protect vulnerable young from infanticidal conspecific females. Four predictions can be deduced from their offspring-defence hypothesis: 1) Female territoriality should be associated with young that are vulnerable to infanticide. 2) Female territoriality should be associated with defence of offspring, and therefore most pronounced during the offspring-rearing season. 3) Defence will be greatest against the segment of thepopulation that commits infanticide and against those individuals that females can dominate. 4) Optimal territory size should be a function of intruder pressure, intruder detectability, female response distances and offspring vulnerability, and changes in food abundance and distribution should not affect territory size directly unless they are correlated with the other factors. In concordance with predictions 1-3, wolverines have altricial young that are vulnerable from late winter until late summer (March – August) and female territoriality seem to be strongest during this period (Magoun, 1985; Landa, Lindén & Kojola, 2000). We lack data to evaluate prediction 4. However, in contrast to prediction 4, I believe that food actually is an important determinant of territory size in wolverine females (see Banci, 1994).

Malin Aronsson’s 2017 thesis examines the territorial dynamics of female wolverines, using the vast dataset from Swedish studies dating back to the 1990s. She makes some interesting observations about the counter-intuitive conclusion that wolverines are territorial despite living in low-resource environments, which is the opposite of what studies on other carnivores would suggest:

Wolverines are highly territorial (Persson et al. 2010), and by comparing space use overlap between years for the same individual I found that wolverines show high territorial fidelity resulting in a stable distribution of resident individuals. Interestingly, territorial fidelity in general is predicted to be low in habitats where food resources are low, variable, unpredictable or deplete fast (Wauters et al. 1995; Kirk et al. 2008; Edwards et al. 2009), which corresponds to the characterization of wolverine habitat in general (Inman et al. 2012b), and particularly in this study area (Person 2005). However, scavenging and caching are integral parts of wolverine biology (Inman et al. 2012b; Mattisson et al. 2016), which increase resource predictability, decrease depletion rate and create a valuable resource (i.e. cache sites) to defend, promoting high territorial fidelity despite the unpredictable environment (Tye 1986; Eide et al. 2004). In addition, occurrence of more efficient predators, such as the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), provide carcasses for direct consumption and caching (Mattisson et al. 2011b). Furthermore, both males and females showed higher between-year fidelity at the territory level (i.e. 90% isopleth) compared to the core areas (i.e. 50% isopleth). That fidelity was lower at the core area compared to territory level suggests that it is critical to maintain the outer territory boundary to secure long-term resources, while the most used area within the territory may vary between years due to spatial fluctuations in key resources, or, for females, location of den sites may vary between years.

Aronsson also documents a few cases of territorial adult females shifting territories after successfully reproducing. Why this happened, and how frequently such moves occur, would be interesting questions for further investigation.

Another Scandinavian paper, a master’s thesis from 2014 by Espen Gregersen, compares home range and territoriality derived from GPS data to those derived from scat analysis. The question in this thesis was not so much “are wolverines territorial?” as “can wolverine territoriality be detected using non-invasive methods like scat analysis?” It’s an interesting question and one of relevance to those of us who have limited resources for large-scale trapping efforts in places like, say, Mongolia. Gregersen concludes that yes, we can indeed determine home range size and observe territoriality using scat samples – but it takes a very large number of samples. This thesis also addressed the question of territorial turnover after the death of a resident adult, which is particularly interesting at the southern edge of distribution, where wide separation of habitat patches makes recolonization less certain.

Finally, a forthcoming book chapter from Copeland et al. proposes a slightly different take on territoriality among male and female wolverines. That chapter will be out soon and I’ll look at it in depth once it’s published, but it too reinforces the idea that female wolverines are highly territorial, and maybe even more strictly territorial than males.

There are many other papers out there that include brief mentions of territoriality and intrasexual exclusion in home ranges. These are just a sample, and this write-up fairly cursory, but I hope they’re adequate to illustrate that wolverines – both male and female – are territorial.

Territoriality and Conservation

At this point, territoriality in wolverines is accepted as an important feature of their life history and ecology. The question of why hasn’t yet been answered, but the fact that wolverines require such large territories, and the fact that their reproductive rates are so low, accounts for their natural scarcity on any landscape – let alone one in which suitable habitat is located only at certain elevations in widely scattered patches across a sea of non-habitat.

Female territories structure the wolverine population. Females must have adequate resources to meet their needs and, hopefully, to reproduce. They occupy and defend territories that allow them to do this. Males in turn seem to select for territories that overlap with resident females. Whether this represents a territorial strategy for sexual monopoly, or whether it’s defined by the male’s capacity for paternal investment, or some combination, is worth investigation (male wolverines seem not to always entirely encompass a female’s territory, leaving her open to potentially overlap with other males, which raises questions about the accepted narrative of males “controlling” access to females). Both males and females disperse over long distances, although the longest movements have been observed in males like M56.

Habitat availability for females is the limiting factor on wolverine population growth and range expansion in the US Rockies. I’d hypothesize that keeping a certain number of territories occupied is critical to the long-term persistence of wolverines in the lower 48, and that there is some distinction to be made between female population numbers, strictly speaking; the percentage of habitat that’s occupied; and where that habitat is located in relation to other habitat. There’s been an enormous focus on “connectivity”– concurrent with the fashion for corridors among conservationists –  but a surprising lack of attention paid to the population nodes themselves. For example, the question that Gregersen raises about recolonization of vacant territories is interesting and important, especially given the observed disappearance of wolverines from places like the Tetons. Presumably this disappearance represents some kind of natural cycle of die-off for a relatively isolated population node, but how long does it take before those territories are reoccupied? And how is time-to-recolonization related to population density and occupancy of the next-nearest population nodes? Questions about functional connectivity among wolverine population nodes are important, but connectivity as a single conservation strategy for wolverines seems like an odd allocation of resources; wolverines don’t migrate, they disperse, and their dispersal patterns are unique and erratic. They are likely to benefit from the broad and intense focus on connectivity and road-crossing structures for other species, but trying to preserve wolverine-specific corridors seems like a good recipe for driving oneself nuts. As one of my Mongolian interviewees once said when discussing wolverines, “One day it’s here, the next day it’s 50 kilometers away. It could turn up anywhere!” I hope to see a greater focus on what’s going on within habitat in the future, including investigation of questions about what drives territoriality and territory size, and how territorial turnover works in a meta-population.

That’s it for now. If any of you have any thoughts about the function of territoriality in female or male wolverines, if you want to point out an obvious resource on this question that I overlooked, or if you just want to say hi, please feel free to comment.

References (with apologies for lack of consistent style formatting and for referring to multiple authors as “et al” instead of writing them out. Time constraints!)

Aronsson, M. 2017. ‘O Neighbour, Where Art Thou?’ Spatial and social dynamics in wolverine and lynx from individual use to population distribution. Doctoral dissertation. Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Uppsala. ISBN (electronic version) 978-91-576-8822-4

Chadwick, D. 2010. The Wolverine Way. Patagonia press.

Copeland, J. P., Landa, A., Heinemeyer, K., Aubry, K. B., van Dijk, J., May, R., Persson, J., Squires, J., and Yates, R. 2017. Social ethology of the wolverine. In: Biology and Conservation of Musteloids. Edited by David W. Macdonald, Christopher Newman, and Lauren A. Harrington: Oxford University Press. DOI 10.1093/oso/9780198759805.003.0018

Gregersen, E. 2014. Assessing territoriality in wolverines (Gulo gulo) using non-invasive genetic sampling. Master’s thesis. Norwegian University of Life Sciences.

Hornocker, M and H Hash. 1981. Ecology of the wolverine in northwestern Montana. Canadian Journal of Zoology. V. 59. pp. 1286-1301.

Inman et al. 2007. Wolverine space use in greater Yellowstone. In Greater Yellowstone Wolverine Program Cumulative Report. Wildlife Conservation Society.

Inman R. et al. 2012. The wolverine’s niche: linking reproductive chronology, caching, competition, and climate. Journal of Mammalogy 93(3):634-644.

Inman, R. et al. 2012. Spatial Ecology of Wolverines at the Southern Periphery of Distribution. Journal of Wildlife Management. 76(4). 778–792. DOI: 10.1002/jwmg.289

Persson, J. 2003. Population Ecology of Scandinavian Wolverines. Doctoral dissertation. Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Uppsala.



“Wolverine” in the Languages of North America

I recently found myself in a library with a large collection of resources on native North American languages – several shelves of dictionaries and grammars, old and new, of everything from Haida to Navajo, Salish to Koyukon. Thinking of the recent (re)discovery of wolverines in the Wallowa mountains of Oregon, I pulled down a thick orange dictionary to see whether the Nez Perce, the people who originally inhabited those mountains, had had a word for wolverine. And there it was: “se·’pin’isé·pin: ‘carrier of snowshoes.'”

I spent the next several hours pulling every dictionary in the section off the shelves and looking up the diverse ways that the nations of North America refer to Gulo gulo. Some of the dictionaries contained some interesting ethnographic insights as well, and in a couple of cases they permitted the reader to track back through the language to figure out the words’ derivations. In one case (Blackfoot), the dictionary provided an entirely inexplicable but very intriguing wolverine reference. It was an hour well spent, though I pity the librarian responsible for reshelving all 25 dictionaries. I later did some more searching online; links to online dictionaries are provided in the text.

Here’s a partial list of the discoveries, arranged by linguistic family, with my own observations in italics. I’ve used the language family terms in the map below so people can assess where the different words were spoken; I’m not current on the inevitable politics of naming and grouping these languages, so I apologize for any terms inappropriately used, but I wanted to provide the reader with some reference points. In the interest of being a super-linguist dork, let me add that I tried to track down all of the correct symbols involved in transliterating these languages, but WordPress has a limited repertoire. I glossed the rest as best I could. “Respect names” refer to words that were used in cases where people did not want the animal to know that they were talking about it, eg, after having recently killed one, or in times of other potential spiritual peril.

As a further note, many of these languages are endangered – most have fewer than 1000 speakers, and some have fewer than 50. I love languages as much as I love wildlife, so this kind of thing hits me hard. It hits me even harder when the wildlife component meets the language component – much of what is known about a given environment can be expressed so much more eloquently in the language that has evolved in concert with that environment. We can’t all learn an endangered language but, politically, we can at least support the rights to self-determination and education that help keep these languages around. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have fifty ways to say “wolverine” – we’d only have one. And that would be as much as a loss as the disappearance of the animal itself.

The language families of North America. From Wikimedia Commons.

Na Dene/Athabaskan

Ahtna: Nałtsiis

Also tl’akoltseni (hunting name), nunyae (respect name for wolves, wolverines, and bears; means something like “carnivorous creature.”)

The plant coltsfoot (petasites) was referred to as nałtsiis ke’, “wolverine’s foot,” and soft or rotten wood was referred to as nałtsiis tsedze, “wolverine’s wood.” The latter is interesting since denning female wolverines sometimes shred rotten wood as bedding material for their kits.

Deg Xinag: Niłtreth

Dena’ina: Nełchish (in the outer and upper inlet regions of S. Central Alaska); Idalsha (in the Inland and the outer inlet regions).

Also recorded were a number of nicknames, unfortunately not explained or elaborated upon: bank’ilkizi, vank’ilikidzi, ghusha, dghusha, veghusa, yes hughen’i, tl’uqelttseni, yun’eh ch’agheyula.

Dene Suline (Chipewayan): Naghai

Eyak: Kena’a. Eyak is now extinct.

Gwich’in: Nätröh, Natrayah

Holikachuk: Niłtseth

Koyukon: Nełtseel

Also: Neełkkaa’k’edenaatlkkele, derived from a stem kket, which means “to slip or to slide on snow.” The author of the dictionary speculates that this is due to the ‘twisted’ appearance of the wolverine’s tracks, although it might also mean that the Koyukon, like some of my friends, witnessed wolverines sliding happily down hills, apparently to amuse themselves.

Hubaagheyee from a stem baa, meaning ‘edge.’ This was a respect name used by women when there was a dead wolverine in the house, in order not to offend it. It meant something like “the one whose fur trims the garments.”

Nełkkaak’edenaatlkk’ele, derived from a stem kk’et, meaning “pair.” This literally means “the one that keeps its feet paired,” most likely referring to the wolverine’s two-by tracks. This was also used for martens, which make the same kind of tracks.

Dzehkenh, the white patch “on a wolverine’s neck,” derived from dzeh, meaning ‘earring’ or ‘ear base.’ (I’m assuming this refers to the throat patch, although it could also refer to the mask or a lighter patch of fur that sometimes runs along the back of the neck)

Doyonh, a respect name meaning ‘rich man’ or ‘master.’ Allegedly this word comes from Russian. It was used after a hunter had killed a wolverine, in which case the carcass would be set up in a sitting position and a feast brought and arranged before it. The hunter and village men might later come and eat the foods that had been offered; women were apparently prohibited from eating these offerings – although evidently not from hunting, since a woman was also cited as having killed and set up a feast for a doyonh. Wolverines were considered to have a strong -yeege’, or protective spirit, and only the hunter was allowed to actually consume the head meat if the animal was eaten. The skinned carcasses were usually cremated, sometimes with an offering, and the cremation spot was considered so powerful afterwards that it remained haunted. Merely passing by the place, even without knowing, was enough to cause rheumatism or other ills. (all ethnographic info from Sullivan 1942, cited in Jette and Jones, 2011)

Upper Kuskokwim: Niłtresh

Navajo: nothing reported for wolverine. Na-hash-chid is reported for “badger” in a Code Talker’s Dictionary from World War II. The Navajo are Athabaskan-speaking people who are far to the south of the core Athabaskan territory in the boreal forest; allegedly the Navajo arrived in the southwestern US relatively recently, perhaps around 1400 CE. Although Navajo territory is not wolverine habitat, I was interested in whether there might have been a carry-over word, since the northern Athabaskan languages offer such a rich array of variations for wolverine. It might be a bit of a stretch, but given the relationship of the badger to the wolverine, and the similarity of the Navajo word to the many other Athabaskan words for wolverine, perhaps this was a carry-over from former boreal days? Likewise, the word for badger in Apache, another southern Athabaskan language, is Naganshitn.

Tanacross: Nahtsith

Lower Tanana: Néłtréeth

Upper Tanana: Nahtsia. This dictionary also informs us that Nahtsia ch’uudelnih, “Wolverines are mean.”

Tlingit: nóoskw


Central Alaskan Yupik: qafcik

Central and Naukan Siberian Yupik: qafsik

Seward Peninsula Inuit: qappik, qaffik

Malimiut and Nunamiut: qavvik

Western Canadian Inuit: Siglit, Caribou qavvik; Copper qalvik

Eastern Canadian Inuit: qavvik; South Baffin qaγik

North Greenland/Polar Eskimo: qaγvik

Greenland Inuit: qappik,”mythological animal” (the Greenland Inuit live in a region that has not, as far as we know, historically had wolverines. Perhaps they were hearing about this animal from other Inuit, and incorporated it as a mythological animal.)

Aluutiq: Alas’aamaakaq. Of which the dictionary writers observe, alas’aamaakamek tangeqsiilartua, “I have never seen a wolverine.”


Anishnaabemowim/Ojibwe/Chippewa: Gwiingowaage+g, Ogiinga’wage+g, Gwiingowaage+g, Ogwiinga’waaaage+g, Wiishkobijaaz+ag. Also listed are the words Ogwiingwa’aagewaayan+ag, “wolverine skin” or “wolverine bag.”

Blackfoot: Piinotoyi. This is straightforward. Next to this entry, however, was Issistsaaki, “wolverine in the form of a woman.” Reading further revealed Issistsaakiksi, “wolverine women,” and then the sentence Mátóomaitapiwa ámokskayi niitáí nikhatayi issistáakiiyi, áí pi’kakiiwa’ siyaawa, “The first people, those, they were the ones who were not afraid of the ones called wolverines, who became imposter women.” Will someone who knows Blackfoot PLEASE get in touch with me to explain what this is all about? I am very curious…..

Plains Cree: kihkwahâkew, “large wolverine,” kekwahâkes, “small wolverine” The text was unclear as to whether this refers to a size distinction, or whether these two terms refer to adults versus kits. Interestingly, Mongolians divide wolverines into “two kinds,” large and small, which they say correlate with sex and markings (males are always, in their view, larger and have distinct markings, while the females are small and dark. Kazakhs, on the other hand, have told me about large, dark males.) Nearby terms in the dictionary included “a grave,” “having a strong smell,” “s/he gives it a good talking to,” “s/he follows at a distance,” “being highly temperamental,” and “being hot tempered.” Because of the way the dictionary was structured, I don’t know whether any of these terms are actually related to ‘wolverine,’ but it was interesting since all of them are, in some sense, descriptive of wolverines or of habits or properties associated with them.

Rock Cree (Boreal forest): omiðacis, ominuthes (Robert Brightman, in his book Grateful Prey, recounts the story of a Cree man who named his snowmobile “omiðacis” because, like the animal, it had the ability to “go all over the place on the snow.”)

Innu: Kuekuatsheu (from which the word “Carcajou” derives….)


Assiniboine: Wícena. Also Mnáza, “A small animal wicked as a bear, similar to a wolverine.”

Lakota: Škecáthanka.

Plateau Penutian/Sahaptian

Nez Perce: se·’pin’isé·pin, meaning “carrier of snowshoes.” Also referenced was “Sahaptin wašapa-ni, “packer.”” Sahaptin refers to a number of Nez Perce related tribes of the Plateau region, including the Yakama, Umatilla, Cayuse, and Palouse, although – in typical fashion – the term ‘Sahaptin,’ meaning “strangers to the land,” was bestowed on these tribes by their enemies, so they are now advocating for the use of ‘Ichishkíin Sínwit’ to refer to the groups in question. Neither the dictionary nor Wikipedia were able to clarify where, exactly, ‘Sahaptin’ is spoken or which of these groups provided the word wašapa-ni.


Upriver Halkomelem: Shxwématsel, also used to refer to fisher or marten. Xwématsel means “lump on the back,” which seems more characteristic of gulos than of their martes cousins. The territory of the  Halkomelem covers a small coastal region and part of Vancouver Island; Vancouver did have its own wolverine subspecies, now probably extinct. Upriver Halkomelem were on the mainland; if anyone has information on whether the island Halkomelem had a word for wolverine, please let me know.

Salish: Cišps. The example sentence in the online dictionary is – typically – q˜o mawlx˜is t cišps, “The wolverine wrecked my tipi.”

Squamish: K’élk’ech


I didn’t find any words for wolverine in any of the Iroquoian (Mohawk, Oneida, Onandaga) dictionaries I searched. I don’t know if this reflects the fact that the dictionary compilers didn’t ask about the word, whether wolverines never inhabited these regions, whether wolverines weren’t culturally important, or whether the word might have been lost since the species is no longer present (if it ever was in the first place; it may have been at the far northern edge of the Iroquoian range.) If anyone has information on this, let me know.


Tsimshian: Noosik, Noosü

Haida: Núusg