A trail camera photo of a wolverine in B.C.’s Shuswap region. (Photo courtesy Grant Hiebert)

A trail camera photo of a wolverine in B.C.’s Shuswap region. (Photo courtesy Grant Hiebert)

Researchers puncture the myth of the Vancouver Island wolverine

VIU team shows Island wolverines largely indistinct from mainland counterparts

The Vancouver Island wolverine may no longer roam on this side of the strait, but then again, it appears the subspecies never really existed in the first place.

New research out of VIU suggests that the Vancouver Island wolverine, a red-listed species in B.C., is not, it turns out, distinct from wolverines found on the mainland and therefore not at-risk after all.

Proving this wasn’t easy, as there have been no confirmed wolverine sightings on the Island since 1992.

“This is what makes it so interesting. They’re a bit of a sasquatch story for the Island,” said Jamie Gorrell, a biology professor at Vancouver Island University.

Many of the records of wolverines on the Island came from old trappers’ logs, said VIU biology grad Evan Hessels, as the animals’ pelts were sought-after and valuable. Gorrell speculated that land-use changes over the years and fragmentation of forests have been other factors in wolverines’ decline. Whatever the reasons, wolverines on the Island are “are rare and possibly extirpated,” wrote Hessels, Gorrell, Eric Lofroth and Richard Weir in a research paper published last month in the Journal of Mammalogy.

Gorrell said wolverines are shy and steer clear of human activity, and Hessels said that makes them hard to find at the best of times, even in areas where their population is known to be higher.

“How do you study something that you can’t see?” asked Gorrell. “Instead of trying to go out and catch wolverines from the Island, what we decided to do was take a trip back in time and go to the museums.”

Gorrell and Hessels visited the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria and the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at UBC and scraped bits of dried flesh from skulls and drilled into skulls, teeth, claws and bones. They collected dust, broke it down chemically in the lab with enzymes, studied “certain spots in the genome” and compared multiple samples.

“The coolest part in my opinion was getting DNA out of close to 100-year-old museum specimens,” Hessels said. “It was definitely a happy moment when we were able to get success with that.”

The researchers didn’t have any preconceptions about what they might find, though Hessels said “you always hope to be surprised.” Gorrell said the 1935 research that classified the Vancouver Island wolverine subspecies was based on skull measurements and said it’s not uncommon now for old taxonomic studies to be re-evaluated using DNA.

Gorrell said his team’s findings could potentially lead the B.C. government to review the classification of the at-risk Vancouver Island wolverine, as wolverines elsewhere in B.C. are considered threatened but not at-risk.

“If it remains a subspecies, then we have a real problem if this subspecies is endangered or potentially extinct, which is terrible,” Gorrell said. “If they simply say it’s not a subspecies, then it maybe takes away that problem for us, and then those resources to figure it out can be diverted to another species which is maybe in a worse situation.”

READ ALSO: Salmon Arm trail cam takes rare shot of wolverine

The findings of Hessels et al open up the possibility for human intervention to re-introduce wolverines on Vancouver Island, but the researchers said that’s unlikely. While increased biodiversity is desirable, introducing a predator into Vancouver Island marmot habitat would create a conflict of interest and the journal article suggests “priorities should be weighed appropriately.” And questions would need to be answered first, Gorrell said.

“If [wolverines] did get eliminated from the Island, why? What was the factor that drove them out?” he asked. “If we haven’t addressed that, then trying to bring them back would probably just be a big waste of time, effort and money.”

Theoretically, wolverines could swim over via the Discovery Islands, which could explain an unconfirmed sighting in Sayward just last month. Gorrell said there’s “no reason” to think they’re cut off from Vancouver Island.

“Multiple unconfirmed sightings are reported every year, raising the possibility that the population still exists today,” notes the journal article, adding that the animals are elusive, nocturnal and live in mostly remote regions. “Some wolverines may still roam undetected.”

For more news from Vancouver Island and beyond delivered daily into your inbox, please click here.

READ ALSO: Wolverine research study boosted by citizen science



editor@nanaimobulletin.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

AnimalsEndangered SpeciesScience

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Abstract Developments is donating $75,000 to support community programming at The Cridge Centre for the Family. (Courtesy of The Cridge Centre)
Victoria developer builds support for community programs

Abstract Developments donates $75,000 to The Cridge Centre for the Family

SD 62 (Sooke) has announced a COVID-19 exposure at David Cameron Elementary in Colwood. Potential exposure dates are Monday, Feb. 22; Tuesday, Feb. 23; and Wednesday, Feb. 24. (Black Press Media File).
COVID-19 exposure at Colwood’s David Cameron Elementary

Potential exposure dates are Monday, Feb. 22; Tuesday, Feb. 23; and Wednesday, Feb. 24.

Office vacancy rates are rising in Greater Victoria while the supply of industrial land is shrinking. (Black Press Media File)
Report finds supply of industrial land in Greater Victoria shrinking

Office vacancy rates in Greater Victoria continue to rise

Central Saanich has received funding for a new multi-use pathway that promises to improve access to Butchart Gardens. (Black Press Media File)
Central Saanich receives grant for multi-use pathway to Butchart Gardens

Province funds entirety of $322,800 project through economic recovery grant program

February 17, 2021 - Kaelyn (L) and Costin Campbell are Goldstream News Gazette 2021 Local Heroes.
Pint-sized duo inspires others to be green

Costin and Kaelyn Campbell are this year’s Environmental Heroes

A health worker holds a vial of AstraZeneca vaccine to be administered to members of the police at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Mainz, Germany, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. The federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate, start with the vaccination of police officers in internal police vaccination centers. (Andreas Arnold/dpa via AP)
B.C. officials to unveil new details of COVID vaccination plan Monday

Seniors and health-care workers who haven’t gotten their shot are next on the list

Lone orca from a pod that made its way north from Georgia Strait and into Discovery Passage on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. Photo by Ella Smiley/<a href="https://www.facebook.com/Comoxvalleywildlifesightings/?ref=page_internal" target="_blank">Comox Valley Wildlife Sightings </a>
Island wildlife viewers thrilled by close view of passing Orca pod

Group gives wildlife photographers a classic oportunity to view them off Campbell River shoreline

An investigation is underway after a man was shot and killed by Tofino RCMP in Opitsaht. (Black Press Media file photo)
Man shot and killed by RCMP near Tofino, police watchdog investigating

Investigation underway by Independent Investigations Office of British Columbia.

B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver on Tuesday December 11, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C.’s compromise on in-person worship at three churches called ‘absolutely unacceptable’

Would allow outdoor services of 25 or less by Langley, Abbotsford and Chilliwack churches

Baldy Mountain Resort was shut down on Saturday after a fatal workplace accident. (Baldy Mountain picture)
Jasmine and Gwen Donaldson are part of the CAT team working to reduce stigma for marginalized groups in Campbell River. Photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River Mirror
Jasmine’s story: Stigma can be the hardest hurdle for those overcoming addiction

Recovering B.C. addict says welcome, connection and community key for rebuilding after drug habit

A Vancouver restaurant owner was found guilty of violating B.C.’s Human Rights Code by discriminating against customers on the basis of their race. (Pixabay)
Vancouver restaurant owner ordered to pay $4,000 to customers after racist remark

Referring to patrons as ‘you Arabs’ constitutes discrimination under B.C.’s Human Rights Code, ruling deems

Dasher is back home with mom Christine Girvin thanks to some help from BC Ferries staff. Photo supplied
The cat came back, with help from BC Ferries staff

After Dasher made a dash, staff in Comox found her and got her home safe

Nanaimo children’s author and illustrator Lindsay Ford’s latest book is ‘Science Girl.’ (Photo courtesy Lindsay Ford)
B.C. children’s writer encourages girls to pursue the sciences in new book

Lindsay Ford is holding a virtual launch for latest book, ‘Science Girl’

Most Read