Archive for the ‘Mustelids’ Category

Bounding weasel

Weasels bound, so they make tracks that look like two little feet. But what really happens is they put their front feet down and then move their back feet into the same place where their front feet were as they bound forward.

My guess is this was a least weasel, because it was awfully small.


This weasel likely came through just before it started to snow yesterday, because its tracks are nearly filled in. There was a whole line of tracks just like these going from one side of the access road to the other.


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Photo by Sexecutioner. 

The yellow-throated marten (Martes flavigula) is a relatively widely distributed species of marten that is found over a broad swathe of East and South Asia, as well as much of Indonesia.

It is the largest marten species in the Old World, weighing as much as 12 pounds, and it was once thought to be dangerous to people.

It was once claimed that these martens would pack up and hunt people.

These martens do hunt in little packs of three or four individuals, but they don’t hunt people.

Instead, they use their pack-hunting behavior to target muntjac and musk deer.

This particular one is in a zoo, which is why it is eating a white domestic mouse.

With the exception of certain species of otter, I don’t know of any other mustelids that hunt in packs.

No other martens do.  Tayras sometimes travel in groups, but I don’t think anyone has observed them cooperatively hunting.

This animal is about the size of a fisher (M. pennanti).  I’ve never heard of fishers killing deer, but for some reason, they do kill both bobcats and Canada lynx, which is a little bizarre. The biologist Roland Kays doesn’t think fishers hunt domestic cats, but the discovery that fishers sometimes prey upon the two North American lynx species should be a little disconcerting for cat owners who let their pets roam in fisher territory. If a fisher can kill one of those animals, it would very easily take a domestic cat.

Fishers are very robust martens, and they don’t have to pack up to be quite successful predators.


I should note that the Martes is currently a contested genus.  Molecular evidence suggests that the two species of marten in North America, the fisher and the American marten (M. americana) are more closely related to the wolverine or glutton (Gulo gulo) and the tayra (Eira barbara) of Central and South America than they are to the Old World martens.

More work has to be done to sort out the phylogeny and taxonomy, but it is likely that our two martens will be given their own genus or genera at some point in the future.



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Audubon’s “tawny weasel” was of no use as a ferret, but the species referred to as the ermine or stoat were excellent rabbit ferrets.

Using ferrets to catch rabbits is an old European tradition. It did have some following in the United States, but now it has been outlawed virtually everywhere.

However, there were at least a few attempts to adapt ferreting to American mustelids.

The following account comes from John James Audubon’s The Quadrupeds of North America, Volume 3 (1854):

We find from our notes, that in the State of New York in the winter of 1808, we kept a Weasel, which we suppose may have been this species [“The Tawny Weasel”], in confinement, together with several young ermines. The latter all became white in winter, but the former underwent no change in colour, remaining brown. On another occasion a specimen of a brown Weasel was brought to us in the month of December. At that season the ermines are invariably white. We cannot after the lapse of so many years say with certainty whether these specimens of Weasels that were brown in winter were those of the smaller, Putorius pusillus, or the present species ; although we believe from our recollection of the size they were the latter. We therefore feel almost warranted in saying that this species docs not change colour in winter.

We were in the habit of substituting our American Weasels for the European ferrets, in driving out the gray rabbit (Lepus sylvaticus) from the holes to which that species usually resorts in the northern States, when pursued by dogs… Whilst the ermines seemed to relish this amusement vastly, the brown Weasel refused to enter the holes, and we concluded that the latter was the least courageous animal (pg. 235-236).

From Audubon’s description of the “tawny weasel” describes it as being much more robust than a European weasel [the least weasel] and that it has a black-tipped tail.  The black-tipped tail and the description of it being distinct from but similar to a stoat or ermine strongly suggests that this “tawny weasel” was what we call a long-tailed weasel. Further, all North American stoats or ermines turn white in the winter. Not all long-tailed weasels do.

The ones in my area actually do, but the ones that Audubon was encountered in the lower part of New York State did not.

I’ve never heard of anyone using anything other than a ferret to ferret, but the use of North American mustelids for this purpose is pretty interesting.

Ferreting with the long-tailed weasels was evidently a failure, but using ermines/stoats to do so was not.

I wonder why stoats/ermines never became as domesticated as ferrets are.

I don’t know how hard they are breed in captivity, but if they were easy to handle, there must be some good reason why they were never domesticated.

In North America, rabbits go to ground only when pressed by an enemy or when the cold weather drives them into holes or pipes.

European rabbits dig extensive warrens, but American cottontails do not.

This could go a long way to explaining why European ferrets were so successful as domestic animals.

We didn’t have the need to make our own ferrets out of our own mustelids– except on a very limited basis.

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Ermine (Mustela erminea), which is pronounced “er-men,” have three names. In North America, they are always called ermine or long-tailed weasels. In Europe and New Zealand, they are called stoats.

In North America, they tend to be found in the northern US and Canada, and most of them turn white in the winter.

Ermine coats are invariably of winter phase stoats from North America.

There is a related species called the long-tailed weasel(Mustela frenata), which is found from southern Canada to Bolivia. Some of the North American populations also turn white in winter.  The main difference between the species is that the long-tailed weasel has a significantly longer tail in proportion to its body size, and they are normally quite a bit larger. However, there is a size overlap.  The smallest long-tailed weasels are about the same size as the largest stoats. Long-tailed weasels are much larger than least weasels (Mustela nivalis), which are the smallest Carnivorans. Least weasels, like the stoat, are found in both Eurasia and North America, and they can even be found in parts of North Africa.

I have a long-tailed weasel in the freezer. It was killed in the late 90’s during squirrel season. It was chasing a rabbit when it was shot, and it was in the transitional phase between its winter and summer pelt.

Update:  I have uploaded photos in a post of my long-tailed weasel that I mention here.

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