Polecats

Polecats are not actually their own group or subfamily scientifically speaking, but these species were given their own page because they resemble each other in several ways, and because they’d take up too much space on an already crowded page. The polecats classified in the Mustela-genus should technically be included with their fellow members on the weasels page, but at the same time belong together because they are genetically closer than the others.

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 superficially compare them to, due to limited knowledge of the species at the time.

Like all weasels, polecats are designed for hunting in underground tunnels, but have a heavier, bulkier build and are larger in size. 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 odour 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.

A ferret (Mustela putorius furo) is the domestic form of the European polecat. They have been domesticated for over two thousand years.(1)

Efficiency underground

Like other members of the genus Mustela, the flexible anatomy of some polecats allow them to lose little speed when their normal gait transitions to a crouching position. This gives them the ability to be efficient at chasing prey that live in underground tunnels.(2)

Facial masks

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.(3) Other sources believe it helps make their shiny, dark eyes less obvious to other animals; making them inconspicuous.(4)

References

  1. Bulloch, M. J., and V. V. Tynes. “Ferrets.” Behaviour of Exotic Pets. Wiley-Blackwell Publishing Ltd., USA (2010).
  2. Weasels: Feisty and Fearless by BBC’s Natural World TV series (2019)
  3. Newman, C., C. D. Buesching, and J. O. Wolff. “The function of facial masks in” midguild” carnivores.” Oikos 108.3 (2005): 623-633.
  4. Stevens, Martin, and Sami Merilaita, eds. Animal camouflage: mechanisms and function. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

(1) Black-Footed Ferret (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) They are often considered to be North America’s rarest mammal.(2) Despite their common name, technically only members of the genus and species Mustela putorius are “true” ferrets.

Appearance

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

Habitat

.

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 a.m. 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.

Reproduction

.

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.

Predators

Black-footed ferrets can fall prey to a number a predators such as golden eagles, prairie rattlesnakes, American badgers, great horned owls, bobcats, coyotes, prairie falcons, and ferruginous hawks.(5)(6)(7) 

Decline

The primary causes for the black-footed ferret’s decline include habitat loss, human-introduced diseases, the sylvatic plague,(8) and indirect poisoning from prairie dog control measures.(4)(5)(10) Traps set for another animals also may contribute to their mortality.(4)

Reintroduction and conservation

Black-footed ferrets were declared extinct in 1979 , until John and Lucille Hogg’s dog Shep brought a dead one to their home in Meeteetse, Wyoming, in 1981.(1) Since 1987, black-footed ferrets have benefited greatly from captive-breeding programmes.(11) The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state and tribal agencies, private landowners, conservation groups, and North American zoos have actively reintroduced black-footed ferrets back into the wild since 1991.(12)

As of May 2015, about 206 mature black-footed ferrets are thought to live in self-sustaining free-living populations.(13)

Range map

Body length: 50.0–53.3 cm / 19.7–21.0 in (males)
Tail length: 11.4–12.7 cm / 4.5–5.0 in (males)
Weight: 650–1,400 g / 1.43–3.09 lb (males)
Lifespan: Up to 5 years (wild), up to 12 years (captivity)
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 May 19, 2020.
  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. Clark, Tim W. (1987). Restoring balance between the endangered black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) and human use of the Great Plains and Intermountain West (PDF)Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences77 (4): 168–173. Archived from the original (PDF) on June 6, 2013. Retrieved September 13, 2020.
  7. Forrest, Steven C., et al. “Population attributes for the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) at Meeteetse, Wyoming, 1981–1985.” Journal of Mammalogy 69.2 (1988): 261-273.
  8. 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).
  9. Clark, Tim W. (1976). “The black-footed ferret”. Oryx. 13 (3): 275–280.
  10. 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
  11. Wildt, David E.; Wemmer, Christen (July 1999). “Sex and wildlife: the role of reproductive science in conservation”. Biodiversity and Conservation. 8 (7): 965–976.
  12. McLendon, Russell (September 30, 2011). “Rare U.S. ferret marks 30-year comeback”. Mother Nature Network. Retrieved 9 October 2019.
  13. Belant, J., Biggins, D., Garelle, D., Griebel, R.G. & Hughes, J.P. 2015. Mustela nigripesThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T14020A45200314. Retrieved 13 August 2020.

(2) European Mink (Mustela lutreola)

Photo by Nicolai Meyer

The European mink, also known as the Russian mink and Eurasian mink, is a species native to Europe. We have placed the European mink in this section because they are genetically polecats, and actually have little in common with the American mink; which they are often superficially compared with. The European mink is closely related to the European polecat, steppe polecat, 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 their 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.

Habitat

.

Behaviour

The European mink is not known to form large territories. The size of each territory depends on the availability of food. Their home range is 60–100 hectares (150–250 acres) in areas with little food. Along shorelines, the length of a home range varies from 250–2,000 m (270–2,190 yd), with a width of 50–60 m (55–66 yd).(4)

The European mink has both a permanent burrow and temporary shelters. Permanent burrows are used all year except during floods, and is located no more than 6–10 m (6.6–10.9 yd) from the water’s edge. These burrows often consist of one or two passages 8–10 cm (3.1–3.9 in) in diameter, and 1.40–1.50 m (1.53–1.64 yd) in length. The nest chamber measures 48 cm × 55 cm (19 in × 22 in), and can be lined with straw, moss, mouse wool or bird feathers. Unlike the American mink, the European mink will confine itself for long periods in its burrow in very cold weather.(5)

Reproduction

.

Diet

The European mink eat 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)

Predators

Predators of the European mink include the European polecat, American mink, golden eagle, large owls.(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)

Range map

Body length: 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: Reported as up to 10 years, but dubious (wild), up to 8 years (captivity)
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. M. l. biedermanni
  2. M. l. binominata
  3. M. l. cylipena
  4. M. l. lutreola
  5. M. l. novikovi
  6. M. l. transsylvanica
  7. 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 9 March 2020 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 2020.
  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. (1990). Mustela lutreolaArchived 18 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine Mammalian Species, American Society of Mammalogists, No. 362, pp. 1-3, 2 figs
  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. 2001. “Mustela lutreola” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 20, 2020
  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. & Reeder, DeeAnn M. (Editors) 2005. Mustela lutreola in Mammal Species of the World. – A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference.

(3) European Polecat (Mustela putorius)

Photo by Peter Trimming

The European polecat, also known as the common ferret, western polecat, black or forest polecat, foumart, fitch, 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 and coarse, 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 form of the European polecat is the ferret. A good, easy way to tell the difference between the two is European polecat noses are solid black, while ferret noses tend to be pink, speckled or dark brown. Their noses, too, can also be black, but this is rare.

Habitat

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.

Behaviour

The European polecat is not as territorial as other polecats, and have been known to share territories with members of the same sex. European polecats tend to have definite home ranges,(1) with males usually having larger territories than females.

Reproduction

.

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)

Predators

.

Fur use

Although their fur is not considered as valuable as the American mink’s or stoat’s, 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)

The European polecat can hybridise with the European mink, producing offspring termed khor’-tumak by furriers,(1) and khonorik by connoisseurs.(9) The European polecat 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 a number of 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 or controlling these introduced mustelids in their Predator Free 2050 programme.(13)

These ferret-polecat hybrids today are often simply called “ferrets”, but they are not the same as purebred domestic ferrets; which are solely bred as house pets and have lost much of their natural instincts, requiring human care to survive.(14)(15)

Blood-sucking myth and surplus killing

Similar to weasels and the American mink, European polecats have been described as “bloodthirsty killers”, that allegedly kill chickens as if in a trance before sucking out their blood. According to the Hankensbüttel Otter Centre, polecats have natural hunting instincts which are triggered by fleeing animals.(16) Under the artificial and confined conditions of a chicken coop, an intruding European polecat will sometimes attempt to kill more chickens than they can eat, so they may cache their food for later consumption. This is believed to be an evolutionary response to unpredictable food resources.(17)

Since polecats cannot asphyxiate chickens, they simply bite and seize them by the neck. Chickens are susceptible to heart attacks when stressed, so all the polecat has to do is wait. Usually there will be a few killed chickens left behind, and seeing teeth marks left in the necks of these uneaten chickens is what likely gave rise to the myth that a polecat simply sucked out their blood; which is something they are not physically capable of doing.

Range, history and conservation

Range map

Body length: 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: 997–1,497 g / 2.2–3.3 lb (males, middle Europe), 635–816 g / 1.4–1.8 lb (females, middle Europe)
Lifespan: Up to 10 years (wild), up to 14 years (captivity)
Range: Widespread throughout most of Europe to western Russia; introduced to New Zealand.
Conservation status: Least concern
Recognised subspecies(18)

  1. M. p. anglia
  2. M. p. aureola
  3. M. p. caledoniae
  4. M. p. furo – Commonly known as the domestic ferret.
  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.
  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 06 May 2020.
  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 18 May 2020.
  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 17 May 2020.
  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. Nahrung & Gefährdung The Hankensbüttel Otter Centre. Retrieved 18 April 2020.
  17. Does surplus killing represent a waste of energy for foxes? Wildlife Online. Accessed 22 July 2020.
  18. Wilson, Don E. & Reeder, DeeAnn M. (Editors) 2005. Mustela putorius in Mammal Species of the World. – A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference.

(4) Ferret (Mustela putorius furo)

Photo by Moody F.

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/patterned.(2)

Behaviour

Purebred domestic ferrets are, by nature, very playful and social. While their wild counterparts are mostly solitary, domestic ferrets exhibit neoteny, including playfulness and the desire to interact with their owners and (in most cases) other ferrets. They 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. Despite popular belief, some adult ferrets can be perfectly happy as a single pet, so long as their owner(s) is home often to provide them with adequate attention.

Ferrets 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.

Like many under-acknowledged animals, ferrets have come a long way in recent years proving that dogs and cats are not the only treasured four-legged household companions. 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

Purebred 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. Many people also assume that they are rodents, which they are not.

Some people believe escaped or abandoned purebred ferrets in North America are a threat to wildlife, and are equal in behaviour to European polecats or ferret-polecat hybrids, when the characteristics of these ferrets are profoundly different from that of wild mustelids. Ferrets have been domesticated for over two-thousand years,(3) and unlike their wilder cousins, purebred ferrets have lost much of their natural instincts and are unlikely to reproduce or survive in the wild.(1) The fact that many purebred ferrets have been spayed or neutered, are often more curious than cautious when it comes to danger, are highly sensitive to heat, and also susceptible to diseases and disorders even whilst in captivity makes survival even less likely.

According to the American Ferret Association, stray ferrets wouldn’t be capable of surviving in the wild for more than a few days before succumbing to the elements or starvation.(4) This again applies mainly to purebred ferrets in the United States, Canada and other countries where they are mostly kept as house pets, and have no other wild, closely related species to hybridize with. It is unclear if they can hybridize with the black-footed ferret in North America, but they’d have little chance of ever coming into contact with one, let alone survive in their harsh environment. In Europe, some ferrets are kept outside and bred for hunting (known as ferreting).(5) These ferrets have a higher chance of surviving in the wild if they escape or are abandoned, and can breed with the native European polecat, resulting in ferret-polecat hybrids.(6)

Domestic ferrets are also prone to broad negative misunderstandings and scaremongering 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,(7) but similar incidents have also been reported about dogs;(8) 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.

Reproduction

.

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.(9)

Diseases and disorders

The domestic ferret is known to be affected by several distinct health problems. They are susceptible to cancers affecting the adrenal glands, pancreas, and lymphatic system. Viral diseases include canine distemper and influenza. Similar to domestic cats, ferrets may also be affected by hairballs or dental problems. It is believed the reason for many of their health problems is due to a lack of genetic diversity, which stem from inbreeding to achieve human-desired traits such as coat colour and temperament.(10) Other factors include being weaned before they’re of proper age, or neutered before sexual maturity was reached.(11)

 

SARS-CoV-2

Since ferrets and humans share a similar upper and lower respiratory tract, they are also suitable to SARS-CoV-2, and can develop a fever, lethargy and cough. Currently, there is no evidence supporting that infected ferrets can spread the virus to humans or vice versa, and ferret-to-ferret transmission has only been reported to occur in experimental settings.(12)(13) Research is ongoing, and generalizations about the spread of COVID-19 in ferrets should be avoided. Please do not abandon these companions out of unfounded fear.

Body length: 46–61 cm / 18–24 in (males), 46 cm / 18 in (females)
Tail length: 13 cm / 5.1 in
Weight: 1,500–2,500 g / 3–5 lb (males), 750–1,500 g / 1.5–3 lb (females)
Lifespan: Up to 10 years. (When properly bred.)
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
  3. Bulloch, M. J., and V. V. Tynes. “Ferrets.” Behaviour of Exotic Pets. Wiley-Blackwell Publishing Ltd., USA (2010).
  4. American Ferret Association, Inc. Frequently Asked Questions. “Is the ferret a wild animal?”
  5. 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.
  6. 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 03 April 2020.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. American Ferret Association, Inc. Frequently Asked Questions. “What should a ferret eat?”
  10. University of Wyoming. “Low genetic diversity in domestic ferrets.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 November 2017.
  11. 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!.
  12. Shi, Jianzhong, et al. “Susceptibility of ferrets, cats, dogs, and other domesticated animals to SARS–coronavirus 2.” Science 368.6494 (2020): 1016-1020.
  13. Kim, Young-Il, et al. “Infection and rapid transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in ferrets.” Cell host & microbe (2020).

(5) Japanese Weasel (Mustela itatsi)

Photo by Dibyendu Ash

The Japanese weasel is native to Japan where it occurs on the islands of Honshū, Kyūshū and Shikoku. They have been introduced to Hokkaidō and the Ryukyu Islands to control rodents and has also been introduced to Sakhalin island in Russia.

Appearance

They can be confused with the Siberian weasel due to their similar colour, markings, anatomy and size, but have a darker shade of reddish brown, a more pronounced lighter underside with a white throat patch and a shorter tail.

Winter coat: Longer, denser and lighter, yellow-buff in colour.

Habitat

.

Behaviour

.

Reproduction

.

Diet

.

Predators

Range map

Body length: 35 cm / 14 in (males)
Tail length: 17 cm / 6.7 in (males)
Weight: 400 g / 14 oz (males)
Lifespan: Unknown (wild), unknown (captivity)
Range: The islands of Honshū, Kyūshū and Shikoku in Japan. Introduced to Hokkaidō and the Ryukyu Islands, including Sakhalin island in Russia.
Conservation status: Near threatened
References

(6) Siberian Weasel (Mustela sibirica)

Photo by Yann Coatanéa

The Siberian weasel, also known as the kolonok, kolinsky or fire weasel is native to Asia, where they are widely distributed and inhabit various forest habitats and open areas. They have also been introduced to several southern islands of Japan.

Appearance

With their overall orange-buff fur they give off an impression of being made of gold and fire. The face has a contrasting brown mask with a matching nose and a white chin and upper lip patches. The body shape is a harmonic combination of sleeky elegance and bulk, which is further strengthened by an unusually narrow skull and strong chin.

Winter coat: Longer, denser and lighter in colour than in summer.

Habitat

.

Behaviour

.

Reproduction

.

Diet

.

Predators

.

Human benefits

The long guard hairs from the tail is valued for their soft quality, and for this reason they have been used to make some of the most exclusive paint brushes on the market. These brushes are under the name konlinsky sable hair or simply sable, but as the case often is with fur trade terminology, it messes up the names of species that have no genetic relation whatsoever. Apart from the dark colour that goes under the same name, a sable is a species of marten, implying the brushes are made from marten hair, when in reality the material comes from an entirely different species of mustelid!

Range map

Body length: 28–39 cm / 11–15 in (males), 25–30.5 cm / 9.8–12.0 in (females)
Tail length: 15.5–21 cm / 6.1–8.3 in (males), 13.3–16.4 cm / 5.2–6.5 in (females)
Weight: 650–820 g / 23–29 oz (males), 360–430 g / 13–15 oz (females)
Lifespan: Up to 6 years (wild), up to 9 years (captivity)
Range: Throughout eastern Asia, north to the Sea of Okhotsk, and south to Kwangtung in China. Introduced to several southern islands of Japan.
Conservation status: Least concern
Recognised subspecies(1)

  1. M. s. canigula
  2. M. s. charbinensis
  3. M. s. coreanus
  4. M. s. davidiana
  5. M. s. fontanierii
  6. M. s. hodgsoni
  7. M. s. manchurica
  8. M. s. moupinensis
  9. M. s. quelpartis
  10. M. s. sibirica
  11. M. s. subhemachalana

References

  1. Wilson, Don E. & Reeder, DeeAnn M. (Editors) 2005. Mustela sibirica in Mammal Species of the World. – A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference.

(7) Steppe Polecat (Mustela eversmanii)

Photo by Andrey Giljov

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)

Habitat

.

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)

Reproduction

.

Diet

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)

Predators

Range map

Body length: 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: Unknown (wild), unknown (captivity)
Range: Throughout central and eastern Eurasia.
Conservation status: Least concern
Recognised subspecies(7)

  1. M. e. admirata
  2. M. e. amurensis
  3. M. e. eversmanii
  4. M. e. hungarica
  5. M. e. larvatus
  6. M. e. michnoi
  7. M. e. talassicus

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.
  6. Wilson, Don E. & Reeder, DeeAnn M. (Editors) 2005. Mustela eversmanii in Mammal Species of the World. – A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference.

(8) Marbled Polecat (Vormela peregusna)
This species shares the common name “polecat”, but is not directly related to other species on this page.

Photo by Volker Röhl

The marbled polecat is found throughout southeastern Europe and parts of western Asia.

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.

Habitat

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)

Behaviour

They are solitary animals, and tend to become aggressive when meeting another.(1) When threatened, a marbled polecat will arch back its head and bare 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.

Reproduction

.

Diet

Their natural diet consists of rodents, small hares, birds, small reptiles, amphibians, fish, snails, insects and fruit.(1)(2)(4)(5)(6)

Predators

Range map

Body length: 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: Unknown (wild), up to 9 years (captivity)
Range: Southeast Europe to Russia and China.
Conservation status: Vulnerable
Recognised subspecies(7)

  1. V. p. koshewnikowi
  2. V. p. negans
  3. V. p. pallidior
  4. V. p. peregusna
  5. V. p. syriaca
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. Wilson, Don E. & Reeder, DeeAnn M. (Editors) 2005. Vormela peregusna in Mammal Species of the World. – A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference.

(9) Saharan Striped Polecat (Ictonyx libycus)
This species shares the common name “polecat”, but is not directly related to other species on this page except for (Ictonyx striatus).

Photo by cultnat

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 the 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 they are 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)

Habitat

The Saharan striped polecats are found on the margins of deserts especially in mountains, in arid stony terrain and sandy semideserts. They prefer steppe-like habitats, and is rarely seen in woodlands.(4) 

Behaviour

The Saharan striped polecat is thought to be a nocturnal and solitary animal. During the day they will hide in the burrows of other animals or dig their own.(3)

Reproduction

.

Diet

Their diet consists of eggs, small birds, small mammals, and lizards.(2) The Saharan striped polecats uses their keen sense of smell to track their prey living in burrows, digging them out and then quickly pouncing when pursuing their prey.(4)

Predators

Range map

Body length: 55–70 cm / 21.5–27.5 in (males)
Weight: 500–750 g / 17.5–26 oz (males)
Lifespan: Unknown (wild), up to 6 years (captivity)
Range: Northern Africa from Morocco and Senegal to Egypt and Eritrea.
Conservation status: Least concern
Recognised subspecies(5)

  1. I. l. libycus
  2. I. l. multivittatus
  3. I. l. oralis
  4. I. l. rothschildi
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.
  5. “Saharan Striped Polecat”. theanimalfiles.com. Retrieved 19-03-2020.

(10) Striped Polecat (Ictonyx striatus)
This species shares the common name “polecat”, but is not directly related to other species on this page except for (Ictonyx libycus).

Photo by markusgmeiner

The striped polecat, also known as the African polecat, zoril, zorille, zorilla, Cape polecat, and African skunk (despite not being a skunk), can found throughout much of central and 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

Generally striped polecats have a black underside, with legs and paws of the same colour. Unlike skunks, striped polecats have three white spots on their head, and four distinct stripes along the length of their bodies to the tips of their tail.(1)

Habitat

The stripe polecat lives in diverse dry and arid climates.

Behaviour

The striped polecats are solitary, aggressive and territorial animals – mainly associating with other members of their species for the purpose of mating. They are nocturnal animals,(2) 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. Like most mustelids, when threatened they spray a foul odour from their anal glands.(3) It is believed that the striped polecat’s spray may be more potent than that of the skunk’s.

Reproduction

.

Diet

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 their main diet consists of rodents.(3) 

Predators

Range map

Body length: 60–70 cm / 24–28 in (males, including tail)
Weight: 681–1,460 g / 1.5–3 lb (males), 596–880 g / 1.3–2 lb (females)
Lifespan: Unknown (wild), up to 13 years (captivity)
Range: South Africa, to as far north as Central Africa.
Conservation status: Least concern
Recognised subspecies(4)

  1. I. s. albescens
  2. I. s. arenarius
  3. I. s. elgonis
  4. I. s. erythreae
  5. I. s. ghansiensis
  6. I. s. giganteus
  7. I. s. intermedius
  8. I. s. kalaharicus
  9. I. s. lancasteri
  10. I. s. limpopoensis
  11. I. s. maximus
  12. I. s. obscuratus
  13. I. s. orangiae
  14. I. s. ovamboensis
  15. I. s. pretoriae
  16. I. s. senegalensis
  17. I. s. shoae
  18. I. s. shortridgei
  19. I. s. striatus
References

  1. Hoath, Richard. A field guide to the mammals of Egypt. American Univ in Cairo Press, 2009.
  2. Walker, Clive (1996). Signs of the Wild. Cape Town: Struik Publishers. p. 56.
  3. Estes, Richard. The behavior guide to African mammals. Vol. 64. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
  4. Wilson, Don E. & Reeder, DeeAnn M. (Editors) 2005. Ictonyx striatus in Mammal Species of the World. – A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference.

American Mink | Badgers | Ferret-Badgers | Fisher | Grisons | Martens | Otters | PolecatsTayra | Weasels | Wolverine