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The Science Behind the Weather: Avalanches

Canadian superhero's namesake could save your life


Caroline Floyd
Meteorologist

Saturday, April 30, 2016, 3:17 PM - In the future, the fate of avalanche victims may be in a new, unexpected, set of paws.

A pilot project out of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and the Kroschel Wildlife Center aims to replace rescue dogs with rescue wolverines in the search for those buried under the snow.

Clocking in at about the size of a standard poodle, the stocky animals are known mainly for their ferocious natures and remarkable hunting abilities - deer, caribou, and lynx are standards on the wolverine menu, and there have been reported incidents of the creatures tussling with black bears over kills. All in all, it might not sound like the furry face you want to see digging you out of a snowbank, but it's partly the tenacious predator's hunting skill that makes it a good candidate for rescue duty.

One of the project's founders, Steve Kroschel, told CBC News, "Wolverines are so smart that within, I would say, a week, you could train them to do this, to find a human scent."

Speaking to Outside, Mike Miller, of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center said the wolverine's natural instincts makes it well-suited to search and rescue, saying they'd been known to search for animals buried along avalanche lines as a source for a quick meal, and that smelling creatures buried under six metres of snow is instinctive for them.

That said, even tame and raised from birth, the animals would find themselves more on the 'search' end of search and rescue, leaving the actual digging to human rescuers. Conveniently, they seem well-suited for that, too. Kroschel told CBC, "You can train them to a harness very easily, they love that. And when they're bonded with you, they will follow you around in the mountains like a dog."

A key to making a go of the project is raising the creatures with humans from birth - something made difficult by the fact wolverines are notoriously reluctant to produce young in captivity. Ideally, the project would move forward with an entire litter of furry future rescuers to raise.

Another project member, Chandelle Cotter, says the secret lies in a blend of having the kits imprint on humans at birth, and positive reinforcement training. Cotter told the Glacier City Gazette, "We’re building these relationships and forming this trust with the animals. We’re really working together. All over the world animals are being trained to do amazing things. In Africa, there are rats that are trained to find land mines, and they’re clearing acres and acres of country that is being given back to the people for the first time. They [rats] are being trained using operant conditioning.”

Sources: CBC News | Outside | Atlas Obscura | Glacier City Gazette | Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

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