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Posts Tagged ‘mink’

sea mink

Depending upon how one understands the red wolf, the United States has had only two native carnivoran species go extinct. One of these was the Caribbean monk seal, which was one of three species of monk seal that once swam the warmer waters of Hawaii, the Mediterranean, and Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, and the West Indies.  The Mediterranean monk seal still holds on, and I’ve laid eyes upon a few Hawaiian monk seals. But the Caribbean species is gone. Sightings still persist in redoubts throughout the West Indies, but virtually every expert believes the Caribbean monk seal to be extinct.

The second species we lost is a bit of a mystery, and yes, there is a bit of a debate as to whether it really was a species at all. The North American mink is a fur trade staple. It has been bred in captivity almost as extensively as red foxes have, and it has been accidentally introduced on more than a few occasions.

In its native range, it is quite widespread, and studies of North American mink and their predation upon muskrats were the basis of early predator-prey ecological studies.  These animals are even undergoing a sort of domestication and training as hunting animal in Utah.

But that common species of North American mink may have not been the only one on this continent. Another mink species was described along the rocky coasts of Maine and the Maritimes.  It was called the sea mink, and unfortunately, it was not described until 1903, when it was already extinct.  The trappers of Maine and the Maritimes knew the mink of the coast was somewhat different, but they had already trapped it out by 1894. The animals were described as being very large mink, measuring 36 inches in length and possessing a reddish coat.

When they were eventually described as a distinct species in 1903, much of the data backing their taxonomic status was based upon skulls taken from shell middens of the Native Americans. Their dentition was different enough for some scholars to maintain that this mink with the big teeth was indeed its own species. The current consensus is that there was a sea mink, and this consensus is made upon an another more sophisticated comparison of its dentition with other North American mink.

It should be noted that not everyone agrees with this species status based upon dentition alone. Richard Manville has long maintained that the sea mink was a unique subspecies of North American mink. Manville examined several specimens, including one that he thought was intergrade between the sea and “wood” mink form, and he concluded that the sea mink was nothing more than a subspecies.  Manville noted that purported sea mink remains dating to around 4,000 years ago were found in inland Massachusetts, well south of where the sea mink was supposed to range. Further, they were found so far from salt water, which led Manville to question whether the sea mink was so regionally distributed and so connected to the ocean as was believed.

Many comparisons have been made between the sea mink and the North American mink that live on the Alexander Archipelago of Alaska. Those contemporary mink are quite large and live very similar lives. Like the sea mink, this large Alaskan mink relies upon cold, boisterous seas for its food. Shellfish feature also prominently in its diet, and it could be argued that the two forms evolved in parallel of each other.

I am leery of modern species being described solely off of morphological characters alone. Because sea mink remains definitely do exist that could be used for DNA extraction, one wonders why no one has tried to use this method to resolve this question.

Now that this large mink is now extinct, its taxonomy is less urgent.  This larger-sized sea mink was in demand because of its coarse fur, which would have been in demand to make fur coats, and its larger size meant that fewer mink would have to be trapped to make the same size of garment. It was definitely trapped out of its range, and all that was left was that other form of mink, which the New England trappers called the “wood mink.”

If this sea mink was just a subspecies, it likely exchanged genes with the local wood mink, and there is a distinct possibility that we could find its genes in some “wood mink” living today.  Even if it were a distinct species, it is possible that the two forms didn’t lose chemical interfertility.

So maybe the US lost two species of carnivoran in historic times. Or may we’ve lost only one. Just like the species status of the red wolf, the sea mink is still contentious in the literature, but unlike the red wolf, there are no molecular studies that have attempted to resolve this problem.

And we are left wondering about the mystery of what has passed, once again.

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American mink

Consider a river bank.

It is a bank along a wild, relatively undeveloped river in the Allegheny Plateau of West Virginia. Its exact identity is of no importance, for there are several rivers like it. Each has roughly the same cast of characters who are about to unveil their story here, so it makes no difference if I give it a name or not.

Along this river, the wild mallards and Canada geese nest every spring, and instead of the little huts their species is  best known for, the muskrats give birth to their young in bank dens.

And their untutored offspring provide sustenance for the wily mink, the water weasel that wishes it were an otter but isn’t quite there yet.

All spring, our mink has been hunting the young ducks and muskrats, and he has unsuccessfully made a few attempts at taking out a wayward gosling, only to be repelled by one of their hissing, biting, splashing parents.

But now the young muskrats and ducks are wary to the ways of the mink, and hunting is hard.  Three days have gone by without a successful kill, but he’s been able to get sustenance from some catfish offal  and heads that were left behind from trot-liner’s night catch. But now the scraps are gone, and hunger is drawing on in.

A mink must eat, but for a mink to eat, it must kill.

And the prey isn’t likely to sacrifice itself.

But sometimes it messes up.

Just down stream from where our friend the mink was eating the catfish remains is a long sandbar. Sometimes migrating waterfowl stop on the sandbar to rest. Often, the resident mother mallards bring their ducklings there to rest,  but this year, they have become a favorite haunt of our mink.

And they keep their distance.

But on the sandbar now, two male mallards have come to visit. It is now the torrid time in summer when the male mallards are in eclipse plumage. This is the time when they look almost identical to the hen mallards, and as if that weren’t emasculating enough, they have lost their ability to fly.

They are utterly vulnerable.

These two birds have spent the spring fighting and whoring and raping as all good male mallards do. Just weeks ago, they were mortal enemies, and now, with the majority of the hens with fuzzy ducklings following them, they are no longer engaged in such debauchery.  The two birds are brothers out of the same clutch, and now, with all that wild season behind them, they cling to each other.

The mallard’s instinct is that a duck on his own is a duck that is about to be eaten, and when a duck loses its ability to fly,  it is really vulnerable.

That’s why nature has selected for drake mallards to lose their ornate plumage during this period. Otherwise, they are just too conspicuous for predators.

On the surface, choosing the sandbar as a night roost makes some sense for these two comrades. The sandbar is surrounded by water on all sides, and any predator that tries to reach the bar will make a splashes that will alert the mallards to its approach.

So the two flightless brothers make the sandbar their roost. They spend the afternoon preening their drab feathers–

While the mink watches them from the bank.

The mink know that it must make its approach at night.  If he makes his move too soon, the ducks will get spooked and find another place to roost.

But as the afternoon heat drags on, the mallards begin to feel steamy, and both waddle off into the current to cool their baking breasts. They begin to splash about and bathe themselves.

As they enter the main channel, the mink slides off into the water and begins his approach. Mink are weasels that are almost otters, and they aren’t above making an ambush from the depths. There is no need for a night stalk when the quarry does something this stupid.

The mink dives upon his approach to the drab mallard brothers and then surfaces but a few feet from them. One of the mallards notices the bobbing head approaching, but his eyes are all rheumy from the water baths.

The mink dives again, and the resurfaces just inches from one of the mallard’s necks. At that moment both ducks jump and try to flee, but it is too late.

The mink has now fastened his razor sharp teeth into the nearest mallard brother’s neck, and try as the mallard might, he cannot dislodge him. His brother croaks in terror, swimming around and around as if trying to figure out what is happening.

The river water bounces up white with the struggle. For ten minutes, the mink and the mallard grapple in the current.  At some points it seems like the mallard might have the upper hand, and he even manages to throw the mink off four or five times.

But hunger and the endorphins released by the act of preying have made the mink plucky. He sullies forth towards the duck’s neck.

The duck begins to weaken, and the mink finally latches on one last time. Death comes to brother mallard.

But not quickly.

When it is all over, the mink drags the massive bird onto the bank.  It is a Herculean effort, for the drake mallard weighs as much he does.

He plucks away some plumage from the breast and begins to feed.

Hunger is sated another day.

For the mallard, there is no other day, but the spring’s orgy means that his genes live on in some of the fuzzballs floating behind their mothers in slower currents downstream from the sandbar. Most of them won’t make it through the summer, and many of those won’t make it through the duck season.

But if this time next year there is one duck with the genes of our sacrificed mallard, then he will have lived on. By that time, that duck son or daughter should have passed its genes onto the next year’s ducklings, who will also know the harrying of river bank mink.

There is perhaps no more moving drama in nature than that between predator and prey, and on this river bank, this drama has been played out so many times with so many different casts of characters.

One hundred fifty years ago, the mighty elk would wander down from the ridgetop forests to drink from the river, but along the river bank, packs of wolves prowled, ready to burst out from the willows and river birches to give chase.

But the elk and the wolf are now gone.

And the river bank story is that of the mink and the mallard.

Bloody nature. Death sustaining life.

 

 

 

 

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Joachim von Sandrart's depiction of a German hunter wearing a fur hat in the seventeenth century. This painting is on display in Munich.

I have a new ushanka.  It was purchased in Munich as a Christmas present from my uncle (Willie’s dad).

It is made of mink fur.

And I love it.

I guess I am one Democrat who won’t be getting awards from PETA.

(Unlike Bill Clinton).

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Baby mink

These are newborn American mink (Neovison vison).

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(Source for photo).

From the Scotsman:

Aggressive mink have colonised most of the coastline of Skye and Lochalsh posing a risk to ground-nesting birds, according to volunteers carrying out a monitoring project.

Hotspots have been found in Kyle, Kylerhea, Loch Bracadale and North Trotternish as well as the islands in the Sound of Raasay, the Skye and Lochalsh, Environment Forum’s Mink Survey says.

About 50 people have now reported mink sightings, including those that have been trapped, killed on the roads or had footprints recorded in tunnels set with clay pads.

Scores of volunteers, including crofters and members of conservation bodies and fishing organisations, have helped gather the information for the survey, which is funded by Scottish Natural Heritage, the Highland Council and the European Leader programme.

The aim is to develop a policy to help protect native wildlife and biodiversity from the alien species.

Mink were introduced into Britain as a farmed animal for their fur, but escaped, or were released into the wild, where they compete with otters and others of the weasel family. They feed on fish, ground-nesting birds, eggs, and small mammals, and often take poultry from hen houses and runs.

Mammal Society member Roger Cottis welcomed the recent results: “This is an important element in the continuing fight to help indigenous Scottish wildlife under threat.”

A project has been removing mink from the Western Isles for ten years during which time almost 1,500 animals have been cleared from the islands.

I wonder what solutions they will come up with.

I bet they are going to trap and neuter all the wild mink.

And then they’ll feed them so they won’t hunt native birds or mammals.

And then their numbers will drop through attrition.

Actually, we know fully well what they will suggest.

Give me a C. Give me U. Give me an L.  Give me another L.

And no one will say a word about it.

 

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Another decomposing animal has brought about some wild speculation.

From the Toronto Star:

A snaggle-toothed, furry creature with a bald face and a rat’s tale has mystified natives in northern Ontario, but they have a name and a history for it.

“The elders used to see it a long time ago,” the manager of Sam’s Store in Big Trout Lake told the Star on Friday.

“No one has seen one for 40 years or so. The elders have a word for it: omajinaakoos. In English, it means ‘the ugly one’.”

Two Health Canada nurses training at the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Band reserve south of Hudson’s Bay said their dog Sam hauled out the 30-centimetre creature it found in early May floating face down near the causeway on the reserve, band spokesman Darryl Sainnawap told the Star.

“It looks like a mixed breed of an otter and a beaver,” he said. “We’re just as curious as everyone to find out what it is.”

One band member, 65-year-old John McKay, said he remembered his grandfather talking about such a creature that “feeds on beavers and otters.” Sainnawap’s 80-year-old grandfather had never seen anything like it, though.

Other elders “think it could be a messenger for bad news,” he said. “We’ll see.”

Well, I hate to shut everyone down here, but I know what this animal is.

It’s nothing really spectacular.

It is a mink.

This is what mink look like when they are alive:

The creature and this mother mink have the same fur color and the same head shape.  Otters really don’t have that same head shape or fur color, and the size of the animal, which is about a foot in length, sounds consistent with a mink.

The fact that a dog found this animal in creek  is further evidence that this animal is indeed a mink. Mink prefer to travel along waterways. One of their favorite prey species is the muskrat, but they will also fish.

However, they are not always found near water.  They have been known to travel some distance to raid chicken coops. (Which are not chicken coups. I can’t imagine what would happen if we had a chicken coup.)

Decomposition and hair loss on any animal that is normally furred tends to set the imagination off. The Montauk Monster and the various dead, hairless canids that have been called “chupacabras” are testament to this phenomenon.

But just because something has no hair doesn’t mean that it’s anything special. I suppose some of this comes from our own anthropocentrism. Hairlessness is a defining feature of our species, and when we see another mammal without hair, it sparks something in our imaginations. We just aren’t that accustomed to seeing other bald mammals.

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Of all the weird hairless animals that have sparked wild speculation, my favorite is Gollum or the Cerro Azul monster from panama.

What was this creature? An alien? A goat-human hybrid?

Nope. It was a dead Bradypus.

Update: This is now the number one referrer to the blog.

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American mink

I saw a mink yesterday evening. It had rained all afternoon, and after the rain had stopped, I decided to go for a walk.  After it rains, all sorts of creatures come out. The rain makes it difficult for the prey species to smell their predators coming or hear them approaching. When the rain stops, they come out to feed. I see the most deer and rabbits right after a good rain, especially if the rain stops just in time for dusk.

The meadow where I saw had just been mowed, so this mink was probably searching for small organisms that get chopped up by the mowing machine.

It was also within 20 yards of a farm pond. I’m sure it checked the pond for any dying fish or those that have already expired. However, I doubt that it found any. This pond has its own predatory fish that cull the sick, and those that die from other causes wind up food for a few channel catfish that have been stocked for that purpose.

The mink saw me approach. Mink know fully well what our kind thinks of them. We either see them as predators that raid our chicken coop or as luxury fur coats.  It knew that a person meant danger, so it galloped off in its rocking weasel gait for dense thicket on the opposite side of the meadow.

However, I knew that this thicket abuts a neighbor’s property, and I also knew that this neighbor keeps a flock of chickens and several Guinea fowl. Mink are known to prey on domestic poultry, and they have also been known to surplus kill. I know that it is just a matter of time before this mink kills one of his birds, and then it will be the end of the mink.

But I enjoyed seeing this little predator, even though I just caught a fleeting glimpse of its chocolate-brown form scurrying into the thicket. This species is quite widespread in North America. It has even colonized Europe through accidental and intentional introductions.

I should state here that the European mink is now classified with the ferrets and polecats. In fact, a European mink has been bred with a European polecat to produce hybrid offspring.

The only close relative of the American mink was the sea mink, which was either a subspecies of the American mink that lived on the coast of New England and the Maritimes or a unique species that made use of the tidal zones to make its living. It went extinct in 1894, when the last specimen was captured on an island off the coast of New Brunswick. It was said to have a superior coat to the American mink. Its coat was reddish brown to tawny in coloration, which is roughly the same color as the American marten’s coat. That’s probably why it was referred to as the “water marten” or “sea marten” in early colonial texts. It was said to have a distinctive musky odor that was of a different type than that of the American mink, and it was roughly a third larger.  It also may have had a lighter build than the American mink, for Sir Humphrey Gilbert described the sea mink as  “fyshe like a greyhound.” (In those days, of course, a fish was anything that lived in the water.)

The sea mink was trapped to extinction for its lovely red pelt. When it went extinct, taxonomists had not fully determined whether it was a subspecies of the American mink or a distinct species of weasel.  We may never fully know its exact taxonomy. This animal is unfortunately lost to the sands of time.

So I hope this dear mink makes out better than its coastal cousin. Its species is far from extinction, but this animal’s life could be in danger. We can only hope that it avoids the poultry houses and chicken coops.

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