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The hyena of the taiga.

There are no true hyenas in the taiga. The hyena's strident laugh is not heard in the vast silent conifer forests, or even in the more hospitable deciduous forests. And of course, the snow would be a problem in winter. Yet some animal has to dispose of the carrion. So the question is, who gets rid of the dead flesh in the grim understory of the taiga?

The thick layer of snow covering the taiga forests in the winter protects many of the plants and animals living in the area from the terrible frosts, which may reach -40[degrees]F (40[degrees]C). Life thus continues on the soil surface under maybe a meter of snow. The rodents look for the pine cones that fell in autumn, the shrews hunt the insects overwintering in the leaf litter, and the small carnivores, such as the weasels and stoats, hunt the rodents. Yet for large animals the snow is a major problem, greatly limiting their movements. Even a strong, long-legged animal like the moose is forced to remain for a few days, or even a few weeks, among the aspen groves and willow bushes. Bears spend the winter sleeping in their den, and the wolves move along the rivers, where the snow is firm enough to walk on.

The wolverine or glutton (Gulo gulo) lords it over the taiga forest in winter, sometimes travelling many kilometers in a single day. Its body is 33-37 in (85-95 cm) long and 14-18 in (35-45 cm) tall at the shoulder, making it the largest member of the weasel family (Mustelidae). The wolverine's large feet have very broad soles that allow it to walk easily over soft, deep snow. Its long dark fur never ices up and is easily cleaned of snow or frost. Because of these properties, many peoples of the boreal forest use wolverine fur to make clothing to protect them from the cold.

The wolverine is practically the only relatively large carnivore whose range is almost completely restricted to the taiga. Known as the glutton in Eurasia (the race Gulo gulo gulo) and as the wolverine in North America (the race Gulo gulo luscus), it is a carnivore that can attack much larger animals, but in the boreal forests it has to complement its diet with small rodents, eggs, nestlings, insects, wild fruit, and pine nuts. It also eats carrion, for example, the bodies of the salmon that die after spawning. Thus, the wolverine plays the same ecological role in the taiga as the hyena plays in the savannah.

The wolverine is definitely a carrion-feeder. Its external appearance recalls that of the hyena, as do its movements, which seem clumsy and careless but are combined with surprising strength and adroitness. The most important difference is that hyenas can live in large groups in the African savannah, which supports large numbers of ungulates. The impoverished ecosystems of the taiga severely restrict the number of wolverines, and the wolverine is a strictly territorial animal that leads a solitary life except for a brief courtship season in July. Delayed implantation takes place and gestation lasts about nine months.

The wolverine's diet in winter depends on ungulates, such as the red deer (Cervus elaphus), the musk deer (Moschus moschiferus), the Siberian roe deer (Capreolus capreolus pygarus), and the moose (Alces alces), but its favorite prey is the caribou (Rangifer tarandus). Wolverines are considerably smaller than large ungulates and a healthy specimen is very difficult for them to kill, so they usually attack young or sick individuals. Sometimes they also steal the catch of smaller carnivores, such as foxes, otters, and martens, a feature that they share with the hyenas of the tropics. In regions where wolves hunt frequently, carrion becomes much more important in the wolverine's diet, as it does not bother to hunt, but simply follows the wolves and eats the carrion they leave behind.

As already mentioned, the wolverine leads a solitary life, and an area of around 385 sq mi (1,000 sq km) usually supports one or two specimens. In the Siberian taiga, which is relatively poor in prey, a single individual's territory may cover 775 sq mi (2,000 sq km), but in richer areas with more prey, its territory may be much smaller, about 115 sq mi (300 sq km) in Finnish Lapland and about 50 sq mi (130 sq km) in British Columbia.

The female wolverine often builds a den for her cubs in the snow beneath a fallen tree trunk, using fur, dry grass, or fir and spruce twigs. The young are born in winter or early spring, and the litter usually consists of two or three cubs (up to four in Alaska). The cubs open their eyes five weeks after birth, and start hunting when they are only seven months old. The females do not breed in the year after giving birth, and thus breed only every second year.

The wolverine is present throughout the taiga, but it is so secretive that it is extremely difficult to observe. Few professional hunters have ever been able to observe it in the wild. But wolverines carefully observe the activities of human beings in the taiga. It frequently inspects traps placed by hunters, and eats the bait and any animals caught, which it does with such caution that is uncommon for one to be caught. Only occasionally do young inexperienced specimens make mistakes doing this, and they do not get a second chance to learn from their mistake ...
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Publication:Encyclopedia of the Biosphere
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2000
Words:917
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