Ferrets & Polecats

Polecats are medium-sized mustelids, with a heavier, bulkier build than the smaller weasels. Like most mustelids, polecats have short legs and elongated bodies and necks. Most polecats have shaggy fur that grows thicker in the winter but does not change colour. They have long claws and are adept at digging burrows and hunting small animals including rodents, lizards, and frogs. Their muzzles are pointed, their ears are low-set and rounded, and their noses range in colour from pink to black. All polecats have small, dark brown eyes and long whiskers on their muzzles, wrists, and “eyebrows”. Their pointed upper canine teeth often protrude from their closed mouths as “fangs”. Like other mustelids polecats can emit a foul odor from their anal glands when threatened. Polecats are less agile than the smaller weasels, looking somewhat ungainly when they move about with arched backs. Still, they have the same bounding gait and can also sit up on their hind legs to survey their surroundings.

Some say the purpose of a polecat’s dark facial mask is to reduce sun glare, or is a warning to predators that threaten them.(1) Other sources believe it helps make their shiny, dark eyes less obvious to other animals; making them inconspicuous.(2)

The following list of species is based on similar common names, and do not necessarily reflex a valid clade.

Common misconceptions

Despite the name, polecats have no relation to cats. “Pole” probably comes from the old French word “poule”, meaning “hen” or “chicken”; likely in reference to the species’ fondness for poultry, while “cat” was most likely the closest animal people could compare it to due to limited knowledge of the species at the time.

References

  1. Newman, C., C. D. Buesching, and J. O. Wolff. “The function of facial masks in” midguild” carnivores.” Oikos 108.3 (2005): 623-633.
  2. Stevens, Martin, and Sami Merilaita, eds. Animal camouflage: mechanisms and function. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

(1) Black-Footed Ferret / American Polecat (Mustela nigripes)

Photo by J. Michael Lockhart / USFWS

The black-footed ferret, also known as the American polecat or prairie dog hunter, is an endangered mustelid once found throughout the western prairies of central North America. Captive breeding programmes have contributed to the black-footed ferret’s return to the western prairie, after previously being declared extinct in 1979.(1) It is often considered to be North America’s rarest mammal.(2)

Appearance

The black-footed ferret is not closely related to the domestic ferret, but has a similar appearance due to its dark legs and mask. Its fur is primarily tan and cream except for the black legs, tail tip, and mask, and is much shorter than the European and marble polecat’s, and it has a thinner, slinkier, more weasel-like appearance with its long neck and larger ears. Black-footed ferrets have distinctive white “eye spots’ in the dark mask over their eyes.(2)

Behaviour

Black-footed ferrets are nocturnal, solitary animals, that only socialize when breeding or raising litters.(3) They are most active above ground from dusk to midnight and 4 am to mid-morning.(4) They are most active aboveground during late summer and early autumn when juveniles become more independent.(5) Black-footed ferrets have been described as alert, agile, and curious animals.

Diet 

The black-footed ferret’s diet varies depending on geographic location, but up to 90% of their diet is composed of prairie dogs.(4)(5) Other animal remains found in scats include birds. Potential prey also included thirteen-lined ground squirrels, plains pocket gophers, mountain cottontails, upland sandpipers, horned larks, and western meadowlarks.

Decline

The primary causes for the black-footed ferret’s decline include habitat loss, human-introduced diseases, the sylvatic plague,(6) and indirect poisoning from prairie dog control measures.(4)(5)(8) Traps set for another animals also may contribute to their mortality.(4)

Reintroduction and conservation

Since 1987, black-footed ferrets have benefited greatly from captive-breeding programmes.(9) The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state and tribal agencies, private landowners, conservation groups, and North American zoos have actively reintroduced ferrets back into the wild since 1991.(10)

Conservation efforts have been met with opposition. Stock growers and ranchers have traditionally fought prairie dogs by way of poisoning.  Despite the opinions of biologists in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in 2005 the U.S. Forest Service began poisoning prairie dogs in private land buffer zones.(11) After public outcry the poisoning plan was revoked.

As of 2013, about 1,200 ferrets are thought to live in the wild.(12)

Size: 500–533 mm / 19.7–21.0 in (males)
Tail length: 114–127 mm / 4.5–5.0 in (males)
Weight: 650–1,400 g / 1.43–3.09 lb (males)
Lifespan: 1–5 years
Range: Five self-sustaining populations in South Dakota (two), Arizona, and Wyoming.
Conservation status: Endangered
References

  1. Black-footed Ferret Recovery Implementation Team. Blackfootedferret.org. Retrieved on March 22, 2013.
  2. Cohn, Jeffrey P. “Ferrets return from near-extinction.” Bioscience 41.3 (1991): 132-135.
  3. Houston, B. R.; Clark, Tim W.; Minta, S. C. (1986). “Habitat suitability index model for the black-footed ferret: a method to locate transplant sites”Great Basin Naturalist Memoirs8: 99–114.
  4. Clark, Tim W. (1986). “Some guidelines for management of the black-footed ferret”. Great Basin Naturalist Memoirs. 8: 160–168.
  5. Hillman, Conrad N. 1968. Life history and ecology of the black-footed ferret in the wild. Brookings, SD: South Dakota State University. Thesis
  6. Abbott, R. C., and T. E. Rocke. “Plague: US Geological Survey Circular 1372, 79 p., plus appendix.” Also available at http://pubs. usgs. gov/circ/1372 (2012).
  7. Clark, Tim W. (1976). “The black-footed ferret”. Oryx. 13 (3): 275–280.
  8. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (1988). Species account: Black-footed ferret—Mustela nigripes, In: Endangered Species Program. Pierre, SD: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mountain-Prairie Region, South Dakota Ecological Services Field Office
  9. Wildt, David E.; Wemmer, Christen (July 1999). “Sex and wildlife: the role of reproductive science in conservation”. Biodiversity and Conservation. 8 (7): 965–976.
  10. McLendon, Russell (September 30, 2011). “Rare U.S. ferret marks 30-year comeback”. Mother Nature Network. Retrieved October 9, 2011.
  11. CNN Broken government series “Scorched Earth”. February 21, 2008
  12. Black footed Ferret in “Defenders”, Fall 2013, page 22.

(2) European Mink (Mustela lutreola)

Photo by Nicolai Meyer

The European mink, also known as the Russian mink and Eurasian mink, is a semiaquatic species native to Europe. We have placed the European mink in this section because it is genetically a polecat, and actually has little in common with the American mink; which it is often superficially compared with.(1)(2) The European mink is closely related to the European polecat, steppe polecat, ferret and Siberian weasel,(1)(2) and breeding experiments back in the late 1970s have resulted in a number of hybrids. The most famous is the khonorik—the offspring of a European/steppe polecat and the European mink.(3)

Appearance

Both the European and American mink are similar in colour, but the European mink is slightly smaller, has coarser fur and is not as adapted to the wet element as its namesake.(4)(5) If spotted in the field where these traits are difficult to see, the white markings on the upper lip can be counted on as a safe characteristic for identification.

Diet

The European mink eats a wide variety of foods, primarily preying on aquatic animals. Mammals such as voles, muskrats, moles and shrews have been revealed in their stomach contents, including birds, frogs, fish, insects and vegetation.(5)

A species near extinction

According to the IUCN Red List, the European mink is critically endangered. There are numerous factors for their decline from habitat loss, to over-hunting, predation, a decline in food sources, competition with the American mink and disease;(6) as well as hybridisation and competition with the European polecat.(6)(7)

Conservation efforts

Governmental organizations as well as scientific communities of most European countries have made efforts to breed captivate European minks and reintroduce to them to their former range.(8) Such areas are the Kuril Islands and Tajikistan, as well as the Baltic Sea.(9)(10) The Lutreola Foundation runs one long-term programme to help recover the European mink on the Estonian island of Hiiumaa.(11)

Size: 38–43 cm / 15–17 in (males), 36–41 cm / 14–16 in (females)
Tail length: 15.3–19 cm / 6.0–7.5 in (males), 15–18 cm / 5.9–7.1 in (females)
Weight: 544–816 g / 1.2–1.8 lb (males), 742 g / 1.6 lb (females)
Lifespan: 6–10 years
Range: Isolated areas of northern Spain and western France. Main range in small pockets of eastern Europe.
Conservation status: Critically endangered
Recognised subspecies(12)

  1. Northern mink (M. l. lutreola)
  2. French mink (M. l. biedermanni)
  3. M. l. binominata
  4. Middle European mink (M. l. cylipena)
  5. Middle Russian mink (M. l. novikovi)
  6. Carpathian mink (M. l. transsylvanica)
  7. Caucasian mink (M. l. turovi)
References

  1. Davidson, A., Griffith, H. I., Brookes, R. C., Maran, T., MacDonald, D. W., Sidorovich, V. E., Kitchener, A. C., Irizar, I., Villate, I., Gonzales-Esteban, J., Cena, A., Moya, I. and Palazon Minano, S. 2000. Mitochondrial DNA and paleontological evidence for the origin of endangered European mink, Mustela lutreola Archived 20 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine. Animal Conservation 3: 345–357.
  2. Marmi, Josep, Juan Francisco López‐Giráldez, and Xavier Domingo‐Roura. “Phylogeny, evolutionary history and taxonomy of the Mustelidae based on sequences of the cytochrome b gene and a complex repetitive flanking region.” Zoologica Scripta 33.6 (2004): 481-499.
  3. Khonorik: Hybrids between Mustelidae. Russian Ferret Society. Retrieved 9 May 2011.
  4. Heptner, V. G., and A. A. Sludskii. “Mammals of the Soviet Union. Vol. II, part 1b, Carnivores (Mustelidae and Procyonidae).” Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Libraries and National Science Foundation (2002).
  5. Youngman, Phillip M. “Mustela lutreola.” Mammalian Species 362 (1990): 1-3.
  6. Maran, Tiit, and Heikki Henttonen. “Why is the European mink (Mustela lutreola) disappearing?—A review of the process and hypotheses.” Annales Zoologici Fennici. Finnish Zoological and Botanical Publishing Board, 1995.
  7. Sidorovich, V. E. “Findings on the ecology of hybrids between the European mink Mustela lutreola and polecat M. putorius at the Lovat upper reaches, NE Belarus.” Small Carnivore Conservation 24 (2001): 1-5.
  8. Amstislavsky, S., et al. “Conservation of the European mink (Mustela lutreola): focus on reproduction and reproductive technologies.” Reproduction in domestic animals 43.4 (2008): 502-513.
  9. Shalu, T. “Mustela lutreola.” On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed February 3 (2001): 2015.
  10. Nowak, Ronald M., and Ernest Pillsbury Walker. Walker’s Mammals of the World. Vol. 1. JHU press, 1999.
  11. “Long-term programmes”. The Lutreola foundation. Retrieved 5 February 2020.
  12. Wilson, Don E., and DeeAnn M. Reeder, eds. Mammal species of the world: a taxonomic and geographic reference. Vol. 1. JHU Press, 2005.

(3) European Polecat (Mustela putorius)

Photo by Malene Thyssen

The European polecat, also known as the common ferret, black or forest polecatfoumartfitch, as well as many other colloquial names, is a species native to western Eurasia and north Morocco.

Appearance

European polecats typically have brown fur, with darker, sometimes black legs, tail, and underside, which a dark mask across the eyes, and white around the nose and mouth. Their fur is shaggy, with dark guard hairs over a lighter undercoat, giving them a grizzled appearance. Their tails taper to a point and are about one third the length of their body.(1)

The domesticated European polecat is known as a ferret. The closely related steppe polecat is very similar in appearance to the European polecat, although its fur tends to be lighter, with fewer dark markings.

Habitat and behaviour

European polecats tend to be found along bodies of fresh water, in wetlands, on the edge of forests, or in grasslands with islands of scrub trees.(2) They are known to have definite home ranges,(1) and each polecat will use several den sites distributed throughout their territory.(3) They will occasionally live in the abandoned burrows of red foxes and European badgers.(1) European polecats can commonly be found active about rabbit warrens.

Diet

The European polecat’s diet mainly consists of small rodents, rabbits, eggs, amphibians and birds.(2) They may even prey on smaller mustelids such as the least weasel.(1) Should food become scarce, European polecats are also known to consume insects, fruit, and even honey from beehives.(4)

Fur use

Although their fur is not considered as valuable as the American mink or stoat, European polecat pelt (known as “fitch”) is used in some articles of clothing. The tail is sometimes used for the making of paintbrushes.(5) European polecat fur became popular in Great Britain during the 1920s, and more so decades later in Finland and the USSR, but it never became popular in North America due to strict import laws.(6)

Hybridisation

In some parts of the British Isles, wild European polecats have hybridized with feral ferrets. Offspring of these two animals have a distinct white throat patch, white feet, and white hairs interspersed among the fur.(7) Ferret-polecat hybrids tend to have better eyesight, greater physical capabilities, and are more independent in nature than purebred domestic ferrets. However, they are less willing to be handled, require much attention in order to prevent boredom, may refuse to enter unfamiliar burrows, and do not cope well with being caged.(8)

European polecats can hybridise with European minks, producing offspring termed khor’-tumak by furriers,(1) and khonorik by connoisseurs.(9) European polecats can also hybridise with the steppe polecat.(10)

Introduction to New Zealand

Ferret-polecat hybrids are so adept at hunting in burrows and tunnels that they have been domesticated to hunt rodents and rabbits. Due to this skill, in 1879 ferret-polecat hybrids (as well as stoats and least weasels), were introduced to New Zealand to control a rabbit population that was breeding out of control.(11) The release of these mustelids proved effective for the time, but later contributed to the decline of vulnerable native birds such as the kiwi, weka and blue duck, and the extinction of kakapo on the mainland.(12) Recently the New Zealand government has taken action in eradicating these introduced mustelids in their Predator Free 2050 programme.(13)

These ferret-polecat hybrids today are often considered to be “domesticated” ferrets, but it should be noted that they are not the same as purebred domestic ferrets kept as pets in the United States and Canada, which are solely breed as house pets and have lost much of their natural instincts—requiring human care to survive.(14)(15)

Size: 35.5–47.7 cm / 14–18 in (males), 27.9–40.6 cm / 11–16 in (females)
Tail length: 11.5–16.7 cm / 4.5–6.5 in (males), 8.4–15 cm / 3.3–6 in (females)
Weight: 997–1497 g / 2.2–3.3 lb (males, middle Europe), 635–816 g / 1.4–1.8 lb (females, middle Europe)
Lifespan: 5–10 years
Range: Widespread throughout most of Europe to western Russia, introduced to New Zealand.
Conservation status: Least concern
Recognised subspecies(16)

  1. M. p. anglia
  2. M. p. aureola
  3. M. p. caledoniae
  4. M. p. furo
  5. M. p. mosquensis
  6. M. p. putorius
  7. M. p. rothschildi
References

  1. Heptner, V. G., and A. A. Sludskii. “Mammals of the Soviet Union. Vol. II, part 1b, Carnivores (Mustelidae and Procyonidae).” Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Libraries and National Science Foundation (2002). pp. 1109–1111
  2. Lundrigan, B. and M. Conley 2001. “Mustela putorius” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed February 10, 2020 at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Mustela_putorius/
  3. Harris, Stephen; Yalden, Derek (2008). Mammals of the British Isles (4th Revised ed.). Mammal Society.
  4. Maxwell, William Hamilton. The Field Book: Or, Sports and Pastimes of the United Kingdom; Comp. from the Best Authorities, Ancient and Modern. E. Wilson, 1833.
  5. Bachrach, Max (1953). Fur: A Practical Treatise (3rd ed.). New York: Prentice-Hall.
  6. Roth, Harald H. ; Merz, Günter (1997) Wildlife resources: a global account of economic use, Springer.
  7.  “Polecat FAQs” (PDF). Vincent Wildlife Trust. 2010. Archived from the original (PDF) on 19 April 2012.
  8. Schilling, Kim; Brown, Susan (2007). Ferrets for Dummies (2nd ed.). Wiley. ISBN 978-0-470-13943-1.
  9. “Khonorik: Hybrids between Mustelidae”. Russian Ferret Society. Retrieved 9 May 2011.
  10. Davison, A., et al. (1999) Hybridization and the phylogenetic relationship between polecats and domestic ferrets in Britain Archived 2011-07-27 at the Wayback Machine, Biological Conservation 87 :155-161
  11. “Rabbit control”A Hundred Years of Rabbit Impacts, and Future Control Options. New Zealand Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) Rabbit Biocontrol Advisory Group. Archived from the original on June 17, 2001. Retrieved 2006-09-12.
  12. Ferrets: New Zealand animal pests – DoC “Department of Conservation (NZ)”  Retrieved 11-02-2020.
  13. Linklater, Wayne, and Jamie Steer. “Predator Free 2050: A flawed conservation policy displaces higher priorities and better, evidence‐based alternatives.” Conservation Letters 11.6 (2018): e12593.
  14. Schilling, Kim. Ferrets for dummies. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.
  15. American Ferret Association, Inc. Frequently Asked Questions. “Is the ferret a wild animal?”
  16. Wozencraft, W. Christopher. “Order carnivora.” Mammal species of the world: a taxonomic and geographic reference 1 (2005): 532-628.

(4) Ferret (Mustela putorius furo)

Photo by Moody Ferret

The ferret is a domesticated form of the European polecat. They are found around the world in homes as house pets, but in some regions of Europe they are bred as hunting companions.

Appearance

Ferrets look similar to European polecats, except ferrets’ noses can be pink, speckled, dark brown, or black, while wild European polecats usually have black noses. Ferrets are sexually dimorphic, with males being substantially larger than females.(1)

There is only one “breed” of domestic ferret, but they have been bred for a large variety of fur colours and patterns. The eight basic colours are albino, black, black sable, champagne, chocolate, cinnamon, dark-eyed white and sable. By far the most common of these colours is sable. There are also nine basic ferret patterns: Blaze, mitt, mutt, panda, point, roan, solid, standard and striped/paterned.(2)

Diet

Ferrets are obligate carnivores, which means they must eat meat. They have a short intestinal tract and absorb nutrients inefficiently, which is one of the reasons their diet needs to be high in meat based protein and fat, and have little to no sugars or carbohydrates.(3)

Diseases and disorders

The domestic ferret is known to be affected by several distinct health problems. Among the most common are cancers affecting the adrenal glands, pancreas, and lymphatic system. Viral diseases include canine distemper and influenza. Certain health problems have also been linked to ferrets being neutered before sexual maturity was reached.(4) Certain colours of ferret may also carry a genetic defect known as Waardenburg syndrome. Similar to domestic cats, ferrets may also be affected by hairballs or dental problems. Some researchers believe the reason for many of their health issues is due to a lack of genetic diversity, which stems from inbreeding to achieve human-desired traits.(5)

Behaviour

Domestic ferrets are, by nature, very playful and social. While their wild counterparts are mostly solitary, domestic ferrets exhibit neoteny (the retention of baby-like characteristics), including playfulness and the desire to interact with their owners and other ferrets. Ferrets are extremely inquisitive and show very little of the cautiousness that you would see in a wild polecat, so it is important to “ferretproof” any areas that they are allowed to play in—they can, and will, get into any space that they can squeeze into, which is why most ferret owners choose to house their ferrets in a cage (preferably one with multiple levels and plenty of room). Ferrets kept in cages should have a bare minimum of an hour outside of the cage each day, since they are very active and energetic when awake. They play much like kittens, and love to chase and pounce on dangling toys, rolling balls, etc.—cat toys work very well as ferret toys. Ferrets can be taught to respond to their names and can learn tricks just like dogs, but this requires a tremendous amount of patience because they have short attention spans and are very easily distracted. An excited, happy ferret will bounce around with its back arched and its mouth wide open, waving its head around, bumping into things, and “dooking”, a sound somewhat similar to a hen clucking. Ferret enthusiasts have named this behavior “the weasel war dance”. Some people unfamiliar with ferrets have misinterpreted this display as aggressiveness or an attack, but it’s actually an expression of pure excitement and playfulness.

Because of their playful and social nature, most ferret owners opt for more than one ferret, so that they can play and wrestle together—an understimulated ferret can become destructive, tearing up objects in its cage and biting on the bars. Ferrets have an undeserved reputation for being nippy and aggressive, but a properly socialized ferret will not bite out of fear or aggression. Ferrets love to wrestle and play rough with each other, including dragging each other around with their jaws, so they simply need to be taught not to play quite so rough with their human owners. Most ferrets are able to learn this pretty quickly with proper training (scolding or hissing at a ferret when it gets too rough), and while they will most likely continue to use their mouths when they play, they won’t actually bite.

Ferrets can be wonderful and easy pets for the person who has the proper amount of time to dedicate to interacting with them. Some can even be trained to use a litterbox.

Behavioural misconceptions

Domestic ferrets are truly on the front lines in the mustelid family when it comes to the negative effects of media. Most people will go their entire life never seeing a mustelid in the wild, but many will come across a domesticated ferret at least once; whether in a pet shop or in someone’s home. Because domestic ferrets are seen far more frequently, the behaviour of more wild and elusive mustelids are often broadly projected onto them.

Some people believe escaped or abandoned purebred ferrets in North America are a threat to wildlife, and are equal in behaviour to black-footed ferretsEuropean polecats, ferret-polecat hybrids; or even weasels, when the characteristics of these ferrets are profoundly different from that of wild mustelids. Ferrets have been domesticated for over two-thousand years,(6) and unlike their wild European polecat cousin or distant weasel cousins, purebred ferrets have lost many of their natural instincts and are unlikely to reproduce or survive in the wild.(1) The fact that most ferrets have been spayed or neutered, and are also highly susceptible to diseases and disorders even whilst in captivity, makes survival even less likely. If these feral ferrets were truly capable of surviving without human care, we would have seen more evidence of this by now. According to the American Ferret Association, feral ferrets wouldn’t be capable of surviving for more than a few days before succumbing to the elements or starvation.(7) This applies mainly to purebred ferrets in the United States, Canada and other areas where they are solely kept as house pets, and have no other wild, closely related species to hybridize with. In Europe and other parts of the world, some ferrets are bred for hunting (known as ferreting).(8) These ferrets have a higher chance of surviving in the wild if they escape or are abandoned, and can breed with European polecats, resulting in ferret-polecat hybrids.(9) Ultimately, there are personality and adaptive differences between ferrets that were bred as house pets, and those that were bred for hunting.

Domestic ferrets are also prone to broad negative misunderstandings and fearmongering about their personality in media, when in reality they’re no more aggressive or dangerous than your average dog or cat. For instance, reports have circulated claiming that infants have been bitten by a pet ferret,(10) but similar incidents have also been reported about dogs;(11) making these unfortunate events likely isolated cases of parental or owner irresponsibility, rather than general behaviour. How a ferret was bred, trained or cared for should always be taken into consideration. Isolated cases in behaviour should not be generalized.

Size: 46–61 cm / 18–24 in (males), 46 cm / 18 in (females)
Weight: 1.5–2.5 kg / 3–5 lb (males), 0.75–1.5 kg / 1.5–3 lb (females)
Lifespan: 7–10 years
Range: Worldwide in association with humans.
Conservation status: Domesticated
References

  1. Schilling, Kim. Ferrets for dummies. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.
  2. American Ferret Association, Inc. “Ferret Colors and Patterns” (https://www.ferret.org/pdfs/Ferret_Colors_and_Patterns.pdf).
  3. American Ferret Association, Inc. Frequently Asked Questions. “What should a ferret eat?”
  4. Paterson, Colin (2006). Find Out about Ferrets: The Complete Guide to Turning Your Ferret Into the Happiest, Best-behaved and Healthiest Pet in the World!.
  5. University of Wyoming. “Low genetic diversity in domestic ferrets.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 November 2017. (www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/11/171101151222.htm).
  6. Bulloch, M. J., and V. V. Tynes. “Ferrets.” Behaviour of Exotic Pets. Wiley-Blackwell Publishing Ltd., USA (2010).
  7. American Ferret Association, Inc. Frequently Asked Questions. “Is the ferret a wild animal?”
  8. Cowan, D. P. “The use of ferrets (Mustela furo) in the study and management of the European wild rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus).” Journal of Zoology 204.4 (1984): 570-574.
  9. Ferrets: New Zealand animal pestsDepartment of Conservation. New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC). 11 August 2006. Archived from the original on 2014-07-24. Retrieved 25 July 2014.
  10. Ferrant, Ophélie, et al. “Injuries inflicted by a pet ferret on a child: morphological aspects and comparison with other mammalian pet bite marks.” Journal of forensic and legal medicine 15.3 (2008): 193-197.
  11. Kaye, Alison E., Jessica M. Belz, and Richard E. Kirschner. “Pediatric dog bite injuries: a 5-year review of the experience at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.” Plastic and reconstructive surgery 124.2 (2009): 551-558.

(5) Steppe Polecat / Masked Polecat (Mustela eversmanii)

Photo credit unknown.

The steppe polecat, also known as the white polecat, masked polecat, or Siberian polecat, is a species native to Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Appearance

They are usually cream to maize-yellow in colour, along with dark brown limbs and a similar coloured tail tip. Their faces are mostly off-white in colour with a brown mask. At times the head can be completely white.(1)

Diet and behaviour

Steppe polecats live in several burrows in its territory. These burrows are usually not dug by steppe polecat, but instead uses those of mammals it has hunted.(2)(3)(4)(5) Males have territories near female territories, and the sexes only socialize for mating from March till April.(3)

They hunt ground squirrels, rabbits, lizards, frogs, birds, insects and fruit; but they are renowned for their skill in hunting rodents. Steppe polecats play a major role in controlling rodent populations; which can be hazardous to both agriculture and human health. However, they are also trapped by locals in their region for their meat and fur.(3)

Size: 32–56 cm / 13–22 in (males),  29–52 cm / 11–20 in (females)
Weight: 2,050 g / 4.5 lb (males), 1,350 g / 3 lb (females)
Lifespan: Not reported.
Range: Throughout central and eastern Europe.
Conservation status: Least concern
References

  1. Heptner, V. G., and A. A. Sludskii. “Mammals of the Soviet Union. Vol. II, part 1b, Carnivores (Mustelidae and Procyonidae).” Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Libraries and National Science Foundation (2002).
  2. Mead, R. A., S. Neirinckx, and N. M. Czekala. “Reproductive cycle of the steppe polecat (Mustela eversmanni).” Reproduction 88.1 (1990): 353-360.
  3. Macdonald, D. W., R. W. Kays, and R. Nowak. “The Carnivora: the evolution, adaptive significance and conservation of their diversity.” Walkers Carnivores of the World. Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, USA (2005): 1-67.
  4. Mitchell-Jones, Anthony J., et al. The atlas of European mammals. Vol. 3. London: Academic Press, 1999.
  5. Smith, Andrew T., et al., eds. A guide to the mammals of China. Princeton University Press, 2010.


Although the following are called ‘polecats’, they are not closely related to the genus Mustela species above.

(6) Marbled Polecat (Vormela peregusna)

Photo by  Laszlo Szabo-Szeley © AVESTOURS

The marbled polecat is generally found in the drier areas and grasslands of southeastern Europe to western China.

Appearance

The marbled polecat has an unusual and very striking appearance for a mustelid – with brightly-coloured fur, a long bushy tail it will curve over its back to appear larger when threatened, and shaggy white fur on its ears. It has a dark brown to black underside, legs and facial mask; with white markings on its muzzle, forehead, and tail. Its back is covered in yellow-orange fur with irregular brown or black spots and markings. Marbled polecats are found in open desert, semidesert, and semiarid rocky areas in upland valleys and low hill ranges, steppe country and arid subtropical scrub forest. They tend to avoid mountainous regions.(1)(2)(3)

Diet and behaviour

Marbled polecats are solitary animals, and tend to become aggressive when meeting another.(1) When threatened, it arches back its head and bares its teeth, while releasing shrills and short hisses.(2)(3) They tend to dwell in the burrows of large ground squirrels or similar rodents, but may also dig their own dens or live underground. Their natural diet consists of rodents, small hares, birds, small reptiles, amphibians, fish, snails, insects and fruit.(1)(2)(4)(5)(6)

Size: 29–35 cm / 11.4–13.7 in (males)
Weight: 320–715 g / 11–25 oz (males), 295–600 g / 10–21 oz (females)
Lifespan: Not reported.
Range: Southeast Europe to Russia and China.
Conservation status: Vulnerable
References

  1. Novikov, G. A. “Carnivorous mammals of the fauna of USSR Israel Program Sci.” Translations, Jerusalem (1962).
  2. Roberts, Tom J., and Bernhard (principe d’Olanda.). “The mammals of Pakistan.” (1977).
  3. Stroganov, S. U. “Carnivorous Mammals of Siberia. Israel Program for Scientific Translations.” (1969): 432-439.
  4. Ben-David, M. The biology and ecology of the marbled polecat (Vormela peregusna syriaca) in Israel. Diss. MSc Thesis, Department of Zoology, Tel Aviv University (In Hebrew), 1988.
  5. Harrison, David L., and Paul JJ Bates. The mammals of Arabia. Vol. 1. London: Benn, 1964.
  6. Macdonald, David Whyte, and Priscilla Barrett. Mammals of Britain & Europe. HarperCollins, 1993.

(7) Saharan Striped Polecat (Ictonyx libycus)

Photo credit unknown.

The Saharan striped polecat, also known as the Saharan striped weasel, Libyan striped weasel, and the North African striped weasel is a mustelid of northern Africa.(1) The taxonomy of its genus is controversial: Poecilictis, a sister genus, is often considered under Ictonyx. The number of species included in Ictonyx is also controversial. In the past, as few as 1 (Ellerman et al. 1953) and as many as 3 (Shortridge 1934) or 4 (Roberts 1951) species were recognized.(2)

Appearance

The Saharan striped polecat is sometimes confused with the striped polecat, though it is usually smaller and has as a circular white mask, compared to the striped polecat’s three white facial spots. They have glossy, coarse black fur on their legs, paws and underside, with ears are black with white tips. Four broad white stripes extend down the body from the top of the head to the tip of the tail.(3)

Diet and behaviour

The Saharan striped polecat is found on the margins of deserts especially in mountains, in arid stony terrain and sandy semideserts. It prefers steppe-like habitats, and is rarely seen in woodlands.(4) It’s diet consists of eggs, small birds, small mammals, and lizards.(2) The Saharan striped polecat uses it’s keen sense of smell to track its prey living in burrows, digging them out and then quickly pouncing when pursuing their prey.(4)

Size: 55–70 cm / 21.5–27.5 in (males)
Weight: 500–750 g / 17.5–26 oz (males)
Lifespan: 5–10 years
Range: Northern and southern edges of the Sahara Mauritania, Western Sahara and Morocco in the west along the Mediterranean littoral of North Africa to the Nile Valley in Egypt, while in the south its range is the Sahel east to Sudan and Djibouti.
Conservation status: Least concern
References

  1. Newman, C., C. D. Buesching, and J. O. Wolff. “The function of facial masks in” midguild” carnivores.” Oikos 108.3 (2005): 623-633.
  2. Larivière, Serge. “Ictonyx striatus.” Mammalian species 2002.698 (5 July 2002): 1-5.
  3. Hoath, Richard. A field guide to the mammals of Egypt. American Univ in Cairo Press, 2009.
  4. Kingdon, Jonathan. The Kingdon field guide to African mammals. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.

(8) Striped Polecat / Zorilla (Ictonyx striatus)

Photo credit unknown.

The striped polecat, also known as the African polecat, zoril, zorille, zorilla, Cape polecat, and African skunk (despite not being a skunk), lives in diverse dry and arid climates from central to southern Africa. Despite their appearance and anal spray defense mechanism, they are not skunks. In fact, skunks tend to be incorrectly called polecats because of their similar appearance to the striped polecat.

Appearance

Unlike skunks, striped polecats have three white spots on the head, and four distinct stripes along the length of their bodies to the tips of their tail.(1)

Diet and behaviour

One of the main differences between a striped polecat and a skunk, is skunks are omnivores, while the striped polecat is carnivorous. Striped polecats consume insects, lizards, snakes and centipedes, but its main diet consists of rodents.(2) The striped polecat is a solitary, aggressive and territorial animal – mainly associating with other members of its species for the purpose of mating. They are nocturnal animals,(3) and spend most of their time on the ground and live in the burrows that they dig, but often sleep in hollow trees or rock crevices. When threatened, they spray a foul odor from their anal glands.(2) It is believed that the striped polecat’s spray may be more potent than that of the skunk’s.

Size: 60–70 cm / 24–28 in (males, including tail)
Weight: 681–1460 g / 1.5–3 lb (males), 596–880 g / 1.3–2 lb (females)
Lifespan: Not reported.
Range: South Africa, to as far north as Central Africa.
Conservation status: Least concern
References

  1. Hoath, Richard. A field guide to the mammals of Egypt. American Univ in Cairo Press, 2009.
  2. Estes, Richard. The behavior guide to African mammals. Vol. 64. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
  3. Walker, Clive. Signs of the Wild. Struik, 1996.

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