The wolverine and the woman who found it
Used to long days in a quiet forest doing research, Katie Moriarty’s world quickly changed in February when one of her remote cameras captured an unexpected image that rocked the scientific world.
A master’s degree candidate at Oregon State University studying pine martens at Sagehen Creek Field Station north of Truckee, Moriarty was sorting images from a field camera when she came across one that carried a sticky note from an employee saying, ” I don’t know what this is.”
“I looked at it a long time and decided it could only be one thing,” Moriarty said in a recent interview. “Then chaos ensued.”
What turned up in the picture was a wolverine, a creature not documented in California for 82 years.
Before Moriarty and the wolverine crossed paths, she had been hand-picked by Bill Zielinski of the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station for the arduous, isolated work on pine martens, a relative of the weasel.
“Bill said we need a special person ” that person has to be pretty hardy,” said Jeff Brown, director of the Sagehen Creek Field Station. “We identified the perfect person with Katie Moriarty.”
But as the wolverine’s discovery drew both scientific and national attention, Moriarty’s roll shifted.
“I was getting 100 to 150 e-mails a day for the first week or week-and-a-half,” Moriarty said. “Because of the media and public, everybody knew my name.”
Moriarty was picked to coordinate a multi-agency effort to find more evidence, leading to countless hours hiking and skiing through the woods where the wolverine was discovered. Crews combed the snow for tracks, airplanes scanned for radio tags, researchers set up hair-snares and cameras, and a few dogs specializing in scat detection were brought in, Moriarty said.
After a second photo turned up, Moriarty and a group of researchers took off in chase across the snow following tracks. They eventually found what they hoped was wolverine poop ” critical for genetic testing.
“You’ve never seen scientists so excited about scat,” Moriarty said. “But it turned out to be coyote.”
Eventually the team was able to find some DNA evidence, which determined that the wolverine was a male. He was not genetically related to populations that had once been in California, which are more closely related to wolverines from Mongolia than anywhere else in North America, Moriarty said.
Instead, the animal likely came from the Rockies or the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho.
“That’s where my role distinctly ended,” said Moriarty, who has gone back to her study of pine martens. “But I wouldn’t mind studying them when I’m done. I do like working in snow and isolated areas.”
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