What do you get when you hang a hunk of deer in a tree and point a camera at it in rural Idaho? A hungry wolverine, a triumphant marten and – most importantly – some rare wildlife images.

The camera trap in question was set up by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game as part of a cross-state plan (also supported by Washington, Wyoming and Montana) to document wolverines in the area, and to establish how many of these elusive animals are out there. Potential camera trap locations are laid out in a grid-like pattern, and cameras and bait are then placed at random locations within that grid. In Idaho alone, 61 such traps have been set.

All that coverage is necessary given the intended stars of the show. Wolverines (Gulo gulo, literally "glutton glutton"), which are particularly large members of the weasel family, are known for keeping to themselves. As a result, documenting them in their natural habitat has proven challenging in the past.

"Only a tiny fraction of the public has ever encountered [a wolverine], and it's difficult to determine how many are out there, but Idaho Fish and Game is trying to learn where they live, or at least, where they are likely to live," notes the department in a press release.

The camera traps have certainly been snapping away – though not always at wolverines. According to wildlife technician Luke Ferguson, all sorts of animals have made appearances.

"So far, we've had animals of some variety on every camera," he says.

This includes fishers, martens, birds, foxes, coyotes, wolves and deer – all decidedly not wolverines. So when the elusive Gulo gulo makes a cameo (though it's unclear whether the timelapse above shows one individual or more), it's a moment to celebrate – even if that wolverine ends up sharing screen time with a marten, another member of the weasel family.

This is especially true considering the effort that goes into collecting these images. Researchers like Ferguson regularly drive snowmobiles up to elevations of 2,400-2,700 metres (approximately 8,000-9,000 feet) in the dead of winter to retrieve memory cards, reset bait for the traps and check to make sure the cameras are working properly. The few hours of daylight they get during the winter months mean they often have to leave well before dawn to make the round-trip.

But exactly why do the wolverines remain in the forest when most prey animals are hibernating, or have moved to lower elevations for the winter? That's something biologists are still working to understand, but we do know how these solitary creatures survive the harsh conditions. 

"During winter, wolverines largely switch from carnivores to scavengers, and they're experts at finding and consuming carrion, which explains how a frozen deer leg was devoured like a Thanksgiving turkey," the team explains. Even food buried beneath thick snow is sniffed out, and a specialised upper molar at the back of the mouth allows the wolverine to chew through frozen meat.

Aside from providing clues about wolverine numbers, the camera traps will also help researchers learn more about their needs and preferred habitat.


Top header image: SirtakySid, Flickr