Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Wolverine WayThe Wolverine Way by Douglas H. Chadwick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"There's wild and there's wolverine."

A few weeks ago - while visiting the Glacier National Park in Montana - I learned some amazing facts about wolverines (the Gulo gulo species), for whom the park territory is one of the last habitats in the continental US. Intrigued by the aura of mystery surrounding these unusual animals, I grabbed Douglas H. Chadwick's "The Wolverine Way" (2010), the only available "serious" book about wolverines. I would love to read more but the choices are quite limited: despite fast approaching senility, I am still a bit too young to read children's books on wolverines, thus only the biological research literature remains, for which I do not have enough background.

The book is a report on the Glacier Wolverine Project of the early 2000s, whose aim was to investigate the behavior of this supposedly hyper-aggressive and most mysterious mammal species. Wolverines belong to the family Mustelidae, which includes species such as badgers, martens, otters, and weasels. They are reputedly the fiercest of animals: while an adult wolverine typically weighs between 25 and 50 pounds, they sometimes compete for food with grizzly bears that weigh 300 to 400 pounds, and quite a few times the little guys have been observed to win. Their physical performance and endurance are striking: for instance, a wolverine was once recorded to climb Mount Cleveland, the tallest peak in the Glacier Park, covering 4900 vertical feet in 90 minutes, in the middle of January!

The most important objective of the project, led by Dr. Copeland, was to study the wolverine population ecology. Recording the movements of individual wolverines - with the use of radio transmitters carried by the animals in collars or implants with circuitry that can track the position via GPS - allowed exploring the distribution of wolverine populations, the rates and sources of mortality, the patterns of gene flow between relatively isolated subpopulations, and in general the issues of wolverine conservation. One of the main results of the project was demonstrating that wolverines are not as exceedingly solitary as had been assumed: for instance, adult males were shown to associate at times with their female mates outside of the mating season and winter denning season.

Being an applied mathematician who sometimes deals with models of population growth, I have found one particularly interesting item: the study shows that, given the present rates and patterns of mortality, the current wolverine population size in the Glacier National Park - between 40 and 50 individuals - is a critical value. This means that if just a few individuals (perhaps even only one or two) were to be taken away, the population would fall into a steady decline, but if the mortality rate went down, the population would likely steadily grow.

The author offers several moving "personal" stories about individual wolverines, which have been assigned names that contain a letter for the gender and a number. The main characters are M1 - "The Big Daddy" of the Glacier Park group, M3 - "The King of Attitude", F4 - "The Good Mother". The stories of these animals often read as dramas or comedies.

In the last two chapters the author makes an impassioned and powerful plea for intensifying the conservation efforts so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy the nature in all its glorious diversity. "The Wolverine Way" is an interesting, occasionally moving and certainly well-meaning book. My rating is not very high just because of the writing, which I find less than stellar: chaotic, repetitive, and mostly unexciting. But I still strongly recommend the book and wholeheartedly support the conservation plea!

Three stars.

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