When it comes to art and animation, animal characters are often given a canine, feline or rodent anatomy; no matter the intended species. In the case of mustelids, due to their misleading features in classic media and overall lack of popularity in studies, they are extremely susceptible to hybrid-like characteristics when not intended. Below are some of the most common mistakes we tend to see.
A brief summary of common mistakes to avoid: Buck teeth, digitigrade hind limbs, elongated ‘canine’ muzzles, cone-shaped tails (non-otter species), and pointy ears.
1. Despite being frequently portrayed as vicious predators, a surprising number of people have also depicted mustelids with buck teeth. We are unsure how this came about, but it’s likely related to a popular misconception that mustelids are rodents. The dentition of mustelids is characterized by canine teeth—sharp molars and premolars.
2. Commonly we see mustelids depicted with the digitigrade paw structure of a canine or feline. It can seem a bit uncanny to the eyes, since all mustelids have plantigrade to semi-plantigrade hindpaws.(1) Some argue some mustelids (mostly members of the genus Mustela) have digitigrade hind limbs, because the metatarsal is raised while in motion. However, their hind limbs do not have such a prominent structure like a canine’s or feline’s to be considered completely digitigrade; hence “semi-plantigrade” being the more suitable description. Depicting mustelids with digitigrade hind limbs could arguably be a matter a personal preference, but if going for a more realistic mustelid look, full digitigrade hind limbs should be avoided; especially if the character is feral.
Additionally, all mustelids have five digits (aka fingers and toes) on both their forepaws and hindpaws.(2) This is only worth noting if an artist is seeking animal realism, since in toony styles animal characters are traditionally drawn with the four-finger, three-toe aesthetic. In this case the number of digits a character has is a matter of personal preference, or in some cases a time-saving technique in animation.
3. Frequently in toony styles you’ll see non-otter mustelids depicted with elongated ‘sausage-shaped’ muzzles extending twice the length of their own head, with noses similar in shape of a wine bottle’s cork. Unfortunately because of big Western productions continuing to caricature their features in media, too many who are unfamiliar with mustelids assume they actually look like this. Unless intentionally going for the this look, mustelids (particularly polecats, weasels and the American mink) have tapered muzzles that are short in length to match their streamline skulls, with noses that are small and relatively flat in comparison.