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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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