Wolverine discovery thrusts scientist into spotlight
August 13, 2008
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 candidate at Oregon State University studying pine martens at Sagehen Creek Field Station north of Truckee, Moriarty recalled last week that she 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 of the fateful photo. “Then chaos ensued.”
What turned up in the picture was a wolverine, an animal whose existence hadn’t been 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.”
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But as the wolverine’s discovery drew both scientific and national attention, Moriarty’s role 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.”
With countless hours hiking and skiing through the woods where the wolverine was discovered, Moriarty was picked to coordinate a multiagency effort to find more evidence. That meant crews combing the snow for tracks, airplanes scanning for radio tags, setting up hair-snares and cameras, and even a few dogs specializing in scat detection, Moriarty said.
After a second promising photo turned up, Moriarty and a group of researchers took off in chase across the snow, following tracks and eventually finding 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 once had been in California, which are more closely related to wolverines from Mongolia than anywhere else in North America, Moriarty said.
Instead, it would have had to come from the Rockies or 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.”