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The Genetic Origins of the California Wolverine

written by: Sonal Panse•edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 4/12/2011

When a wolverine was spotted in California after an 86-year absence, researchers were curious and interested. The animal had been considered extinct in the state. Had some specimens survived then? Tests were carried out to analyze the genetic origins of the California wolverine.

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    Origin Wolverine

    The wolverine, scientific name gulo gulo, is a medium sized, land-dwelling species of the Mustelidae or weasel family in the genus Gulo (meaning glutton). It is also called Glutton or Carajou. The two sub-species of the wolverine are the Old World form Gulo gulo gulo, and the New World form G. g. luscus.

    Wolverines in California

    Wolverines were once plentiful in California, but over-hunting and trapping the animal for its rich fur practically wiped out the native California wolverine population. The last native Wolverine (Gulo gulo) was seen in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California in 1922. There were many reported, unverified sightings since then. Then, on 28 February 2008, an actual wolverine was photographed by a digital remote camera that researchers had put up on the Tahoe National Forest to research another animal - the marten. Several more photographs were taken of the animal in the days that followed. This was the first California wolverine seen in the state in 86 years.

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    Taking Specimen Samples from the Wolverine

    California wolverines are genetically unique from other North American populations. Now that one was sighted, researchers wanted to determine whether the wolverine had somehow survived as part of a historic population, or escaped, or maybe it had been released from captivity? Or perhaps it had made its way on its own from outside of California? The U.S. Forest Service agreed to fund their study.

    After the first photograph, researchers used specially trained dogs to sniff out the feces and urine of the wolverine and determine the extent of the area covered by the animal. They then set up a series of remote-sensor cameras in the area. They also set up snares to collect hair samples from the wolverine.

    Samples of the wolverine's feces, urine, and hair were collected and sent for analysis to the U.S. Forest Service's Wildlife Genetics Laboratory in Missoula, Montana.

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    Analyzing the Wolverine Samples

    DNA tests were carried out on the wolverine samples. From the sex region Y (SRY)and sex region X (SRX) tests, it was determined that the wolverine was a male.

    The researchers used the software program Structure to compare the Wolverine genetic samples with those from wolverine specimens in the California museum as well as from wolverines from Yellowstone, Wyoming, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Alaska, Ontario and the Yukon Territory.

    The samples were also analyzed for their stable carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) isotope composition.

    The Structure genetic analysis as well as the carbon and nitrogen isotope analyses showed that there was a close match between the unknown California wolverine and the wolverines from the Rocky Mountains in Idaho. There was no match with the museum specimens of the extinct Californian wolverines.

    What the Researchers Concluded

    The researchers published their findings in Northwest Science. Given the genetic similarity with the Rocky mountain wolverines, they think that the wolverine may have traveled to California all the way from the Rockies. Wolverines are known to travel over long distances. There is also the chance that someone might have released the animal in California.

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    Further Reading

    Big Foot Fails DNA Test

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    Resources -