Weasels

The taxonomy of weasels can be very confusing (it constantly changes), as evolution has lead to a variety of species sharing a similar anatomy. Since “mustela” is Latin for weasel, the family Mustelidae is often simply referred to as the “weasel family”. However, given our better understanding of genetics today, this term can sometimes be misleading in the English language. For example, many distinctive mustelids (such as badgers, otters, martens, and the wolverine) are related to weasels, or in some respects “weasel-like”, but are not true weasels. Technically, only mustelids belonging to the genera Mustela and Neogale are weasels.(1)(2) All in all, the term “weasel” has developed such a broad, sometimes arbitrary definition, that it is not consistently applied or understood.

The weasels are the tiniest mustelids. They have long, slender bodies adapted to pursuing prey into their burrows, losing little speed when their normal gait transitions to a crouching position. Despite being the smallest mustelids, some attack and kill prey up to ten times their size; a risky but rewarding ability when the need for protein is so great. Weasels vary in body length from approximately 13 to 52 cm (5 to 20 in), with females being smaller than the males. Their tails may be from 1.2 to 29.4 cm (0.5 to 11.5 in) long. They usually have reddish or brown upper coats and white bellies. Depending on the subspecies, only five species of weasel are known for changing to their white winter coats—the least weasel (M. nivalis), long-tailed weasel (N. frenata), stoat (M. erminea), Haida stoat (M. haidarum), and American stoat (M. richardsonii).(3)

Myths and Misconceptions

How “weasel” can be a confusing common name

Usually in England and New Zealand, “weasel” is a generic common name used to refer to the least weasel (Mustela nivalis), while in North America the term often applies to any of the four small native Mustela and Neogale species.(2)(4) Given the dominance of Western media, this has led many people to assume that there are only one or a few species of weasel in existence, or that these species are somehow more “weasel-like” compared to others. The truth is, there are numerous different species and subspecies of weasel in the world; many of which have their own unique features, size, and range, including abilities and vulnerabilities in relation to their respective environments.

A family misunderstood

Centuries of human-centric myths, superstations, and preconceived notions have contributed to weasels being some of the most stigmatised mammals on Earth. The common expression “weasel out of”, and the misnomer term “weasel word” also have not helped their image. To this day, society continues to habitually attribute human traits or intentions to these animals—believing they are simply bloodthirsty, egg-sucking creatures that kill for pleasure.

Like most wild predators, weasels hunt and do what they must to survive. Small predators in particular live on the edge with threats around every corner, including their own high metabolic rate and short digestive tract. It is a constant race around the clock to stay warm and alive,(5) so they have to be more intense than most to make it through the day, and unless we know the reasons for why they evolved to behave as they do, it is easy to misinterpret their intentions. We are not saying they do not enjoy chasing their prey or the taste of their food, but it is not pure malice for fun.

Surplus killing

Some would argue the reason weasels are thought to kill for pleasure is due to the act of surplus killing—especially in regard to domestic fowl. Though the exact reason is inconclusive, it is possible that, when presented with an abundance of food, multiple prey are killed so the weasel may return to cache the remainder for later consumption.(6) It is this similar evolutionary programming that has enabled other carnivorous animals to survive.(7)

A tunnel hunter has to stay as slim as possible, which is not without costs—the high metabolic rate and little storage of body fat will cause them to perish if they do not eat within a few hours throughout the day.(8) Weasels sometimes kill more than they can eat, but it is also possible the weasel is unable to return to eat or cache the remainder of its kill, due to someone scaring it off, or removing the carcass in its absence.

They do not live in packs

There is a misconception that weasels live in packs, based on observations of females with well-grown young. Male kits will quickly outgrow their mother. The sexual dimorphism is the most pronounced in the smaller weasel species.

They do not suck eggs

Despite the claim in a couple of William Shakespeare’s plays,(9) weasels do not suck eggs. In relation, the misnomer term “weasel word” may have first appeared in Stewart Chaplin’s 1900 short story “The Stained-Glass Political Platform”, in which weasel words were described as “words that suck the life out of the words next to them, just as a weasel sucks the egg and leaves the shell”.(10)

The truth is, weasels (more specifically stoats) have evolved a particular way to consume eggs. They bite a small hole in the egg, then lick the liquid content when it starts flowing.(11)(12) So essentially they drain eggs, not suck them. Seeing empty eggshells left behind may have given rise to the myth that weasels suck eggs, which—due to lacking the necessary jaw muscles—they are not physically capable of doing.(13)

They do not suck or drink blood

There have been exaggerated claims that weasels (as well as the American mink) will suck the blood of their prey. As with eggs, weasels do not—and physically cannot—suck blood.(14)(15) Some argue that weasels are capable of sucking blood because they draw milk from their mother when unweaned. However, this is called “suckling”, which is a completely different reflex from “sucking”. Weasels may lap up a small amount of blood if it trickles from a wound, or to get moisture and extra nutrients with their food in a practical sense, but there is no significant proof that they actually indulge in it.

Following an act of surplus killing, seeing uneaten animals with wounds to their necks may have given rise to the myth that their blood was simply “sucked out” by the weasel. In addition, weasels are not hematophagous animals and do not “drink” blood. Some people only thought they were seeing weasels drinking the blood of their prey, and this was enough to give rise to this myth as well.

References

  1. Koepfli, Klaus-Peter, et al. Multigene phylogeny of the Mustelidae: resolving relationships, tempo and biogeographic history of a mammalian adaptive radiation“. BMC biology 6.1 (2008): 10.
  2. Patterson, Bruce D., et al. On the nomenclature of the American clade of weasels (Carnivora: Mustelidae)“. Journal of Animal Diversity 3.2 (2021): 1-8.
  3. Landers, Rich. “A peek at animals that turn white in winter”. The Spokesman-Review (Jan. 10, 2012). Accessed 11 of June, 2020.
  4. King, Carolyn M., and Roger A. Powell. The Natural History of Weasels and Stoats: Ecology, Behavior, and Management. Oxford University Press, 2006. p. 12.
  5. Brown, James H., and Robert C. Lasiewski. “Metabolism of weasels: the cost of being long and thin.” Ecology 53.5 (1972): 939-943.
  6. Mills, L. Scott. “Conservation of wildlife populations: demography, genetics, and management (2nd ed.)”. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 148
  7. Kruuk, Hans. “Surplus killing by carnivores”. Journal of Zoology 166.2 (1972): 233-244.
  8. King, Carolyn M. The Advantages and Disadvantages of Small Size to Weasels, Mustela Species”. Carnivore behavior, ecology, and evolution. Springer, Boston, MA, 1989. 302-334.
  9. E. Cobham Brewer. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.
  10. Chaplin, Stewart. The Stained-Glass Political Platform. The Century Magazine (1900): 304-308.
  11. Harris, Steve. How to identify bird egg thieves. BBC Wildlife magazine. 30 April 2020.
  12. Mancini, Mark. How Did Weasels Get Such a Bad Rap?. 4 June 2019. HowStuffWorks.com. 30 April 2020.
  13. Rising, Gerry. Weasels. March 15, 1999.
  14. Heidt, Gary A. “Anatomical and behavioral aspects of killing and feeding by the least weasel, Mustela nivalis L.”. Journal of the Arkansas Academy of Science 26.1 (1972): 53-54.King,
  15. Carolyn M., and Roger A. Powell. The Natural History of Weasels and Stoats: Ecology, Behavior, and Management. Oxford University Press, 2006. p. 127.

Old World Weasels

Weasel species of Africa, Asia, and Europe. This also includes a few species found in the Americas.

New World Weasels

Weasel species of the Americas that diverged from Old World weasels between 11.8 – 13.4 million years ago. This includes the American mink.

Polecats

So-called “polecats” are weasel species with a heavier, bulkier build than most of the others. This page includes the domesticated ferret.

What Are Mustelids?

Badgers | Ferret-Badgers | Fisher | Grisons | Martens | Otters | Tayra | Weasels | Wolverine