Research on old animal remains often have much in common with crime scene investigations and forensic detective work. How did the animal end up at the site? When did it die? What has caused damage to the remains? Sometimes, with careful analysis the evidence stacks up, allowing you to tell a more complete story. This time, a story about the death of a wild reindeer calf.
During the late summer of 2013 we picked up a small, inconspicuous and weathered bone from the edge of a melted down ice patch in central Norway. The bone was brought back to the lab and was carefully cleaned and dried. This was in the early phase of collecting faunal remains and closer examination revealed an aspect to these sites that we had not considered much before; the ice patches had been used by more species than just reindeer and humans.
The bone, a shoulder blade from a young reindeer, show clear marks of carnivore gnawing with two conspicuous puncture marks from the fangs. DNA analysis revealed that the animal was closely related to the wild reindeer that live in the area today, while radiocarbon dating show that the calf had died during the late Viking Age (about 1000 years ago). Which animal the gnaw marks belonged to was, however, not clear until we tested it out using the skulls of different predators. Like Cinderella and her shoe, only one animal had a perfect match: the wolverine!
Wolverines typically weigh just between 8 to 18 kg, but like most mustelids, they are powerful hunters capable of taking down prey much larger than themselves, including reindeer. Wolverines typically kill their prey with neck bites, but are known to make shoulder bites as well. As both the front and back of the bone have been pierced at the same time, it is likely that the punctures happened during feeding rather than the kill. No other bones from this site match the age and DNA profile of the reindeer bone, so we are not entirely sure yet who killed the calf. If more bones melt out during this field season we might be able to find out if it was the wolverine or if it was just scavenging on the butchered remains of human hunting.
More info on wolverines: