Polecats

Page last updated: 01/05/2024

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. The polecats classified in the genus Mustela should technically be included with their fellow members on the Old World Weasels page, but at the same time belong together because they are genetically closer than the others, with the majority of them being able to interbreed. The ferret is also a type of polecat, but is the domesticated form of the European polecat (Mustela putorius) and the only domesticated mustelid not commercially bred for their fur. As a result, the ferret was given its own page.

Despite the name, polecats have no relation to cats. Pole probably derives 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 these mustelids at the time. For the record, polecats are not skunks. Skunks are sometimes misleadingly called polecats, which in some cases probably derives from being confused with the striped polecat (Ictonyx striatus).

Polecats are typically less adept at climbing than the smaller weasels, and are more equipped for digging and terrestrial activities. Most polecats have shaggy fur that grows thicker in the winter but does not change white in colour. Most also have dark to light facial masks, supporting that not all polecats or weasels with masks are ferrets.

Efficiency underground

Like other weasels, 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 tunnels.(1)

Facial masks

It is thought the purpose of a polecat’s facial mask is to reduce sun glare, or is a warning to potential predators or other antagonists.(2)(3) Others believe it helps make their shiny dark eyes less obvious to other animals—making them inconspicuous.

References

  1. BBC’s Natural World TV series. (2019). Weasels: Feisty and Fearless.
  2. Newman, C., C. D. Buesching, and J. O. Wolff. The function of facial masks in ‘midguild’ carnivores“. Oikos 108.3 (2005): 623-633.
  3. Stevens, Martin, and Sami Merilaita, eds. “Animal camouflage: mechanisms and function. Cambridge University Press, 2011. p. 309.

#1 European Mink (Mustela lutreola)

Photo by Abujoy

The European mink is a species once widespread throughout Europe. We have placed the European mink in this section because they are genetically polecats and actually have little in common with the North American mink, which they are often superficially compared with. The European mink is more closely related to the European polecat and Siberian weasel.(1)(2)

Breeding experiments in the late 1970s have resulted in a number of hybrids. The most famous is the khonorik—the offspring of a European polecat and European mink.(3)

Appearance

Both the European and North 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. 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.(4)(5) The European polecat also shares these markings on the upper lip, but they usually have a more distinguishing facial mask than the European mink.

Territorial and denning behaviours

The European mink can be found in densely shaded banks of small fresh water bodies. They do not form large territories, and the size depends on the availability of food. In water meadows where there is little food, territory size can range 60–100 hectares (150–250 acres), though a size consisting around 12–14 hectares (30–35 acres) is more common. The length of a home range along a shoreline can vary 250–2,000 m (270–2,190 yd) with a width of 50–60 m (55–66 yd).(4)(5)

The European mink may construct their own burrows, live in an evacuated burrow of a water vole, or live in crevices among trees roots. These burrows can be either permanent or temporary. Permanent burrows are used year round except during floods. The nesting area inside the burrow is lined with straw, moss, mouse wool and bird feathers.(4)(5)

Reproduction

Mating season ranges from February to March.(5) The sexual organs of the female become enlarged and pinkish-lilac in colour, which is in contrast with the North American mink, whose organs do not change.(6) Once a female is impregnated, the gestation period last 35–72 days. Births can occur from April to May, with litters consisting around 2–7, but usually around 4–5. The kits are blind at birth but are able to open their eyes after 4 weeks. They depend on their mother’s milk for about 10 weeks before they start tanking and capturing prey. After about 2.5–4 months they become independent, and sexual maturity is reached in females at about 1 year.(5)

In another study at a Moscow Zoo, oestrus was observed on 22–26 April, with duration of pregnancy lasting 42–46 days. Parturition was recorded on 6 June, with the number of young ranging from 3 to 7. The kits remained blind until they were 30–31 days old. By the age of 20–25 days they begin to taste food brought by their mother. They started to leave the burrow from the 4th to 27th of July and went on hunting expeditions with their mother at the age of 56–70 days. They became independent at the age of 70–84 days and attained sexual maturity in the following year.(4)

Diet

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.(6)

Predators

Predators and threats of the European mink include the European polecat, North American mink, golden eagle, large owls.(6)

A species near extinction

According to the IUCN Red List, the European mink is critically endangered.(7) There are numerous possible factors for their decline from habitat loss, to overhunting, predation, a decline in food sources, competition with the North American mink, Aleutian disease, secondary poisoning, as well as hybridisation and competition with the European polecat.(7)(8)(9)

Conservation efforts

Governmental organizations as well as scientific communities of most European countries have made efforts to breed captivate European mink and reintroduce to them to their former range.(10) Such areas are Tajikistan and the Baltic Sea.(5) Foundation Lutreola runs a long-term programme to help recover the European mink on the Estonian island of Hiiumaa. As of early 2022, a population has stabilised on Hiiumaa, with around 160 to 250 European mink populating the island in autumn, with a number that decreases to less than half after winter.(11)

Geographic range

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
Subfamily: Mustelinae
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”. Ferret CentreArchived from the original on 30 May 2019. Accessed 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). pp. 1100–1104.
  5. Shalu, T. 2001. “Mustela lutreola” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 20, 2020.
  6. Youngman, Phillip M. (1990). “Mustela lutreola“, Archived 18 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine. Mammalian Species, American Society of Mammalogists, No. 362, pp. 1-3, 2 figs.
  7. Maran, T., Skumatov, D., Gomez, A., Põdra, M., Abramov, A.V. & Dinets, V. 2016. “Mustela lutreola. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T14018A45199861. Downloaded on 13 February 2021.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Peeters, Tom. The Guardian. 29 March, 2022. Down but not out: how the European mink found refuge on an Estonian island. Accessed April 02, 2022.
  12. Wilson, Don E. & Reeder, DeeAnn M. (Editors) 2005. Mustela lutreola in Mammal Species of the World. – A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference.

#2 European Polecat (Mustela putorius)

Photo by Peter Trimming

The European polecat, also known as the western polecat, black or forest polecat, foumart, fitch, as well as many other common names, is a species native to western Eurasia and North Africa.

This species has been historically viewed negatively by the public, especially in Britain, where the European polecat was persecuted by gamekeepers. To this day, there is both a lack of exposure in popular media and awareness for the species compared to other British mammals, and misunderstandings of their behaviour persist in some rural areas.(1)

Appearance

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

Occasionally, colour mutations include albinos, leucists, isabellinists, xanthochromists, amelanists, and erythrists.(2) In typical erythristic individuals, the underfur is usually bright reddish. The guard hairs on the trunk are brilliant reddish or reddish brown. Black guard hairs are lacking from the lower body and head. In some rare situations, the guard hairs are so light that they blend in with the pale-yellow underfur. These individuals are referred to as “amelanistic”. In these circumstances, the entire animal has an extremely pale golden-yellow tint.(3) These individuals are called “isabelline” or “xanthochromistic”.

Confusion with the ferret

The domesticated form of the European polecat is the ferret, and they are often confused due to being both similar in size and portions. While they can look very similar, there are often a few ways to tell the difference between the two. This overview focuses on the differences between European polecats and ferrets in the UK specifically.

Much like ferrets, European polecats have two annual moults: one in spring and another in autumn. In summer they both have darker, shorter fur than their winter counterparts. This can make a ferret with a sable colouration difficult to distinguish, and it is important to note that in this case pelage identification methods alone are not 100% guaranteed. During winter, the pale underfur on the flanks and back of European polecats shows through more, creating a paler appearance. They have a more prominent forehead band and cheek patches in winter, which contrast with their facial masks.(4)

A European polecat’s nose is usually solid black, while a ferret’s tends to be pink, speckled, or dark brown. A ferret’s nose can also be black, but this is less common. The European polecat’s skull has a larger cranial volume as well as a broader postorbital constriction (indents behind the eye sockets).(5) In addition, the ferret is slower in all its movements compared to the European polecat, and hardly makes any use of its anal scent glands.(6) Ferrets overall represent a neotenous form of the European polecat.(7)

Furthermore, typical European polecats have dark fur on their face that extends to the nose. Pale cheek patches and a possible frontal band contrast with a dark facial mask. No scattered white guard hairs over the body. No throat patch, or less than 50mm (2 in) in length. Dark fur covers the paws.

Meanwhile sable ferrets have dark fur on their face which typically does not reach the nose. Their pale cheek patches and frontal band are usually large and contrast poorly with the darker facial mask. Scattered white guard hairs cover the body, particularly the hindquarters and tail. Throat patch is 50mm (2 in) or longer. They tend to have one or more white paws.(4)

Confusion with the European mink

Because of their similar physical appearance and white markings around the nose, the European polecat can be confused for the European mink. However, the European mink’s flank area is often a solid colour, unlike the European polecat’s. The European polecat can also be distinguished by the white to off-white ring between their eyes and ears, which usually gives them a more defined facial mask by comparison.

A zoo claims to have a European polecat, but is that really what it is?

Some European zoos will sometimes keep European polecat-ferret hybrids and simply call them European polecats. We received this information directly from a zoo, but would like to keep our source confidential out of respect. Among other reasons, we were told is done to keep information both simple and easily digestible for visitors, since the average person would not know the difference. If an animal labelled as a European polecat has white paws, a distinct white throat patch 50mm (2 in) or larger, or white hairs interspersed among the fur, chances are it is a hybrid.

Currently, it is not possible to distinguish European polecats from European polecat-ferret hybrids through DNA analysis. Physical differences, specifically pelage characteristics, are the best guide to identifying them.(8)

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.(9) They are known to have definite home ranges,(10) and each polecat will use several den sites distributed throughout their territory.(6) They will occasionally live in the abandoned burrows of red foxes and European badgers.(10) 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. They tend to have definite home ranges,(10) with males usually having larger territories than females.

Reproduction

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Diet

The European polecat’s diet mainly consists of small rodents, rabbits, eggs, amphibians and birds.(9) They may even prey on smaller mustelids such as the least weasel.(10) Should food become scarce, European polecats are also known to consume insects, fruit, and even honey from beehives.(11)

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Range, history and conservation

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Fur use

Although their fur is not considered as valuable as the North American mink’s, European polecat pelt (known as “fitch”) is used in some articles of clothing. The tail is sometimes used for the making of paintbrushes.(12) 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 Canada or the United States due to import prohibition, for fear of the establishment of non-native species.(13)

Hybridisation and Introduction to New Zealand

In some parts of the British Isles, wild European polecats have hybridised with feral ferrets. While some European polecat-ferret hybrids can look near identical to pure European polecats, they typically have a distinct white throat patch, white paws, and white hairs interspersed among the fur.(10) These European polecat-ferret hybrids tend to have better eyesight, greater physical capabilities, and are more independent in nature than 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.(14)

Heads of a 1) European polecat, 2) ferret, and 3) European polecat-ferret hybrid. Source: Journal of Genetics, Vol. XI, No. 2. Larger image
Heads of a 1) European polecat, 2) ferret, and 3) European polecat-ferret hybrid. Source: Journal of Genetics, Vol. XI, No. 2. Larger image

The European polecat can hybridise with the European mink, producing offspring termed khor’-tumak by furriers,(10) and khonorik by connoisseurs.(15) They can also hybridise with the steppe polecat.(16)

European polecat-ferret hybrids are so adept at hunting in burrows and tunnels that they have been bred and used to hunt rodents and rabbits. Due to this skill, in the late 1800s, both European polecats and European polecat-ferret hybrids (as well as a number of Eurasian stoats and least weasels) were introduced to New Zealand in hopes of controlling a rabbit population that was breeding out of control.(17) The release of these mustelids may have seemed like a good idea to some at the time, but this decision 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.(18) Recently, the New Zealand government has taken action in eradicating or controlling these introduced mustelids in their Predator Free 2050 programme.(19)

These European polecat-ferret hybrids in New Zealand and other parts of the world are often simply called “ferrets”. However, given that they are hybrids, they are not the same as the pure ferrets one would typically find at a pet store. Unlike European polecat-ferret hybrids, pure ferrets have lost much of their natural instincts and require human care to survive.(20)(21) Organisations and zoos should include scientific names and (when possible) clearer terminology to help the public differentiate between wild and domesticated Mustela species. They should also refrain from carelessly substituting actual photos of these wild mustelids with photos of people’s pet ferrets.

Geographic range

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 western Eurasia and North Africa. Introduced to New Zealand.
Conservation status: Least concern
Subfamily: Mustelinae
Recognised subspecies(22)

  1. Carpathian polecat – (M. p. rothschildi)
  2. Common polecat – (M. p. putorius)
  3. Mediterranean polecat – (M. p. aureola)
  4. Middle Russian polecat – (M. p. mosquensis)
  5. †Scottish polecat – (M. p. caledoniae)
  6. Welsh polecat – (M. p. anglia)
References

  1. Bidder, Owen (2009), The European polecat: unsung species. Archived 11 November, 2011 at the Wayback Machine, Natur Cymru, Summer/Haf 09.
  2. Lodé, T. Genetic divergence without spatial isolation in polecat Mustela putorius populations. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 14.2 (2001): 228-236.
  3. Heptner, V. G. & Sludskii, A. A. (2002). Forest, or Black, Polecat. Mammals of the Soviet Union. Vol. Volume II, part 1b, Carnivores (Mustelidae and Procyonidae) . Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Libraries and National Science Foundation. pp. 1109–1111.
  4. The Vincent Wildlife Trust. (2014). Polecats & Ferrets How to tell them apart. (PDF).
  5. Harris, Stephen; Yalden, Derek (2008). “Mammals of the British Isles” (4th Revised ed.). Mammal Society. pp. 485–487.
  6. Hemmer, H. (1990). “Domestication: the decline of environmental appreciation”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 86.
  7. Lewington, J. (2000). “Ferret husbandry, medicine, and surgery”. Elsevier Health Sciences. pp. 93.
  8. Polecat FAQs (PDF). Vincent Wildlife Trust. 2010. Archived from the original (PDF) on 19 April 2012.
  9. Lundrigan, B. and M. Conley 2001. Mustela putorius (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed 10 February, 2020.
  10. 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
  11. 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.
  12. Bachrach, Max (1953).“Fur: A Practical Treatise” (3rd ed.). New York: Prentice-Hall. pp. 348–352.
  13. Roth, Harald H. ; Merz, Günter (1997) Wildlife resources: a global account of economic use, Springer.
  14. Schilling, Kim; Brown, Susan (2007). “Ferrets for Dummies”. (2nd ed.). Wiley. ISBN 978-0-470-13943-1.
  15. “Khonorik. Hybrids between Mustelidae”. Ferret CentreArchived from the original on 30 May 2019. Accessed 9 May, 2020.
  16. 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
  17. “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. Accessed 17 May, 2020.
  18. Ferrets: New Zealand animal pests – DoC Department of Conservation (NZ)”  Accessed 11 February, 2020.
  19. 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.
  20. Schilling, Kim. “Ferrets for dummies”. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.
  21. American Ferret Association, Inc. Frequently Asked Questions. “Is the ferret a wild animal?”
  22. Wilson, Don E. & Reeder, DeeAnn M. (Editors) 2005. Mustela putorius in Mammal Species of the World. – A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference.

#3 Japanese Weasel (Mustela itatsi)
This species has the common name “weasel”, but shares a genetic similarity to polecats.

Photo by Ken Ishigaki

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 have also been introduced to Sakhalin island in Russia.

Appearance

They can understandably be confused with the Siberian weasel, due to their similar colour, markings, anatomy, and size. However, the Japanese weasel has a darker shade of reddish brown, a more pronounced, lighter underside, with a white or light buff throat patch and a shorter tail. Both species also share a similar range on Japan’s southern islands, so even if a photo of a polecat/weasel was taken in Japan, that does not necessarily mean it is of M. itatsi.

Winter coat

Longer, denser and lighter, yellow-buff in colour.

Habitat

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Behaviour

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Reproduction

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Diet

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Predators

Geographic range

Body length: 35 cm / 14 in
Tail length: 17 cm / 6.7 in
Weight: 400 g / 14 oz
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
Subfamily: Mustelinae
References

#4 North American Polecat (Mustela nigripes)

Photo by Adam Hammond (Smithsonian National Zoological Park).

The North American polecat, also simply known as the American polecat, or more commonly and misleadingly called the black-footed ferret, is an endangered mustelid once found throughout the western prairies of central North America. They were thought to be extinct in 1979 until one was found dead in 1981. By the end of the decade, captive breeding programmes were put in place and have helped increase their numbers.(1) Many biologists and conservationists consider Mustela nigripes to be North America’s rarest mammal.(2)

We decided to call the black-footed ferret the North American polecat on this website because it became tedious to repeatedly explain that they differ from actual ferrets whenever either species were mentioned.

They are not ferrets

Because of their somewhat similar appearance, photos of the North American polecat are sometimes mistaken for a ferret that one keeps as a pet, and their more popular name “black-footed ferret” (or especially when shortened to simply “ferret”) only adds to this confusion. Despite both species belonging to the same genus, the North American polecat is not a ferret—a term in much of the English-speaking world that applies to the domesticated form of the European polecat.(3)(4)(5) Save for the European polecat, the North American polecat is no closer related to a ferret than other Mustela species on this page. Regardless of the reasons for their chosen common name, “black-footed ferret” is an ambiguous term to the average layperson.

Similar to the European polecat-ferret hybrid being simply called a “ferret” in countries like New Zealand, it can be incredibly misleading when M. nigripes is generalised as a ferret—contributing to the misbelief that actual ferrets can survive in the wild. More effort should be made by educators and officials to make distinctions between these two species clear. If more in the general public are aware of their differences, this clarity could potentially help with conservation efforts for the North American polecat, as well as reduce harmful misinformation about ferrets.

Appearance

The North American polecat may not be the ancestor of the ferret, but they have a similar appearance due to their dark legs and mask. Their fur is primarily cream and tan except for the black legs, tail tip, and mask, and is much shorter than the European polecat’s and marbled polecat’s. They have a thinner, slinkier appearance than ferrets with their longer neck and larger ears. North American polecats have distinctive white eye spots in the dark mask over their eyes.

The North American polecat is sometimes confused with the steppe polecat, but they can be distinguished by the cream to tan fur on the middle to upper part their neck, whereas the steppe polecat’s neck is typically dark brown in this area.

Habitat

North American polecats inhabit, historically in some cases, shortgrass prairie, mixed-grass prairie, desert grassland, shrub steppe, sagebrush steppe, mountain grassland, and semi-arid grassland.(6)(7)

Behaviour

North American polecats are nocturnal, solitary animals, that only socialise when breeding or raising litters.(8)(9) They are most active above ground from dusk to midnight and 4 a.m. to mid-morning.(9) They have been described as alert, agile, and curious animals.

Reproduction

Mating season is in February and March. They scent mark and urinate near mounded prairie dog burrows in order to attract a mate.(10) The females are induced ovulators, meaning the ovulation is induced by mating. Gestation is 42 days. A litter contains about 3 kits on average but can vary between 1 and 9.(6) They are born in prairie dog burrows and stay with their mother until about August.

Diet

Their diet varies depending on geographic location, but up to 90% of their diet is composed of prairie dogs.(9)(10) Other animal remains found in scats include birds. Potential prey also included thirteen-lined ground squirrels, pocket gophers, deer mice, cottontail rabbits, upland plovers, horned larks, and western meadowlarks.(10)

Predators

North American polecats can fall prey to a number of predators such as golden eagles, prairie rattlesnakes, the North American badger, great horned owls, bobcats, coyotes, prairie falcons, and ferruginous hawks.(10)(11)(12) 

Decline and conservation efforts

The primary causes for the North American polecat’s decline included habitat loss, human-introduced diseases, the sylvatic plague,(13) and indirect poisoning from prairie dog control measures.(11)(14) Traps set for other animals may have also contributed to their mortality.(14)

They 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, the North American polecat has benefited from captive-breeding programmes.(15) Many agencies and groups have actively reintroduced North American polecats back into the wild since 1991.

Cloning

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a North American polecat named Elizabeth Ann (born 10th December 2020) is first successful clone of any endangered species native to the United States. She is the clone of Willa, a wild-caught North American polecat whose cell line was cryopreserved in 1988. Willa’s genes and tissue samples were preserved in the San Diego Zoo Global’s Frozen Zoo. This ongoing research hopes to increase the genetic diversity and disease resistance of North American polecats.(16)(17)

Two North American polecats named Noreen and Antonia were born on the 17th of April, 2024. They were cloned from the same genetic material as Elizabeth Ann. Noreen was born at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado, while Antonia resides at the Smithsonian National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia.(18)

COVID-19 vaccinations

While it is still unclear if North American polecats can contract SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans), because of the outbreaks that occurred on mink farms, researchers decided to inoculate them out of an abundance of caution. As of February 2021, two-thirds of captive-bred North American polecats have been vaccinated for the disease.(19)

A return near Meeteetse

Once thought to be extinct and rediscovered in Meeteetse, Wyoming in 1981, the Game and Fish and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released 12 male and 6 female captive-born North American polecats on the historic recovery site. They were released on private land. Partnerships with landowners such as the Lazy BV and Pitchfork ranches in Wyoming have helped with recovery efforts. Game and Fish maintains at least 35 individuals at the Meeteetse recovery site. The new North American polecats were released to help maintain populations.(20)

Reintroduced range

Body length: 50.0–53.3 cm / 19.7–21.0 in
Tail length: 11.4–12.7 cm / 4.5–5.0 in
Weight: 650–1,400 g / 1.43–3.09 lb
Lifespan: Up to 5 years (wild), up to 12 years (captivity)
Range: Isolated self-sustaining populations in South Dakota, Arizona, and Wyoming.
Conservation status: Endangered
Subfamily: Mustelinae
References

  1. Blackfootedferret.org Black-footed Ferret Recovery Implementation Team. Accessed on 19 May, 2020.
  2. Cohn, Jeffrey P. Ferrets return from near-extinction. Bioscience 41.3 (1991): 132-135. p. 132.
  3. ASM Mammal Diversity Database. “Explore the Database”. Accessed 27 July, 2021.
  4. Lazar, J. Wayne, and Gordon D. Beckhorn. Social play or the development of social behavior in ferrets (Mustela Putorius)?”. American Zoologist 14.1 (1974): 405-414.
  5. Harris & Yalden 2008, pp. 485–487
  6. Steven C. Forrest, Dean E. Biggins, Louise Richardson, Tim W. Clark, Thomas M. Campbell, III, Kathleen A. Fagerstone, E. Tom Thorne, Population Attributes for the Black-Footed Ferret (Mustela nigripes) at Meeteetse, Wyoming, 1981–1985, Journal of Mammalogy, Volume 69, Issue 2, 20 May 1988, Pages 261–273, https://doi.org/10.2307/1381377
  7. Conrad N. Hillman, Tim W. Clark, Mustela nigripes, Mammalian Species, Issue 126, 15 April 1980, Pages 1–3, https://doi.org/10.2307/3503892
  8. Briercheck, K. and R. Csomos 2001. Mustela nigripes“. (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed 12 February, 2021.
  9. 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 Memoirs. 8: 99–114.
  10. 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 Sciences. 77 (4): 168–173. Archived from the original (PDF) on 6 June, 2013. Accessed 13 September, 2020.
  11. Hillman, Conrad N. 1968. “Life history and ecology of the black-footed ferret in the wild. Brookings, SD: South Dakota State University. Thesis.
  12. 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. p 269.
  13. Williams, E.S.; D.R. Kwiatkowski; E.T. Thorne & A. Boerger-Fields (1994). “Plague in a black-footed ferret” (PDF). Journal of Wildlife Diseases. 30 (4): 581–5. doi:10.7589/0090-3558-30.4.581. PMID 7760495. S2CID 19203496.
  14. Clark, Tim W. (1986) “Some guidelines for management of the black-footed ferret”, Great Basin Naturalist Memoirs: Vol. 8 , Article 14.
  15. Wildt, David E.; Wemmer, Christen (July 1999). Sex and wildlife: the role of reproductive science in conservation. Biodiversity and Conservation. 8 (7): 965–976.
  16. COHEN, LI. CBS NEWS. 18 February, 2021. Black-footed ferret becomes the first endangered animal native to the U.S. to be cloned, marking a “bold step forward” for conservation efforts. Accessed 18 February, 2021.
  17. Revive & Restore. THE BLACK-FOOTED FERRET PROJECT. Accessed 20 February, 2021.
  18. Revive & Restore. 17 April, 2024. Two Additional Black-Footed Ferrets Born As a Result of Cloning. Accessed 20 April, 2024.
  19. Learn, Joshua R. The Wildlife Society. 18 February, 2021. Black-footed ferret COVID-19 vaccination seems to be working. Accessed 21 July, 2021.
  20. Sara DiRienzo, Public Information Officer. Wyoming Game & Fish Department. 3 October, 2022. Game and Fish releases 18 black-footed ferrets on historic recovery site. Accessed 16 October, 2022.

#5 Siberian Weasel (Mustela sibirica)
This species has the common name “weasel”, but shares a genetic similarity to polecats.

Photo by Conifer

The Siberian weasel, also known as the kolonok, kolinsky, hutong weasel, 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 sleekly elegance and bulk, which is further strengthened by an unusually narrow skull and strong chin. While the Siberian weasel is mostly an even, warm colour all over, the subspecies M. s. moupinensis can have a dark tail tip.

Winter coat

Longer, denser and lighter in colour than in summer.

Habitat

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Behaviour

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Reproduction

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Diet

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Predators

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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 “kolinsky 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!

Geographic range

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
Subfamily: Mustelinae
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.

#6 Steppe Polecat (Mustela eversmanii)

Photo by https://prirodasibiri.ru/
Alternate photo: Link 1
Alternate lighter mask: Link 1, Link 2

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. The face is mostly off-white in colour with a brown mask. At times the mask can be very light, making the head appear completely white.

The steppe polecat may look similar to the North American polecat, but they can be distinguished by the dark brown fur on the middle to upper part of their neck, whereas the North American polecat’s is cream to tan in this area.

Habitat

.

Behaviour

.

Reproduction

.

Diet

The steppe polecat feeds on birds, reptiles, insects, and fruit, but they are renowned for their skill in hunting rodents. Steppe polecats play a role in controlling rodent populations, which can be hazardous to both agriculture and human health. They will also occasionally cache prey carcasses in their burrow for later consumption.(1)

Predators

Humans are the primary predators of steppe polecats. In certain regions they are trapped by locals for their meat and fur.(1)

Geographic range

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
Subfamily: Mustelinae
Recognised subspecies(2)

  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. Dubbelde, E. 2011. Mustela eversmanii (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed November 20, 2020.
  2. Wilson, Don E. & Reeder, DeeAnn M. (Editors) 2005. Mustela eversmanii in Mammal Species of the World. – A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference.

#7 Marbled Polecat (Vormela peregusna)
This species shares the common name “polecat”, but is not directly related to other species on this page except for I. striatus and I. libycus.

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, and shaggy white fur on the ears. They have dark brown to black fur on their underside, legs and facial mask, with white markings on the muzzle, forehead, and tail. The 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 dwell in the burrows of large ground squirrels or similar rodents, but may also dig their own dens or live underground.(1)(2)

Behaviour

They are solitary animals, and tend to become aggressive when meeting another.(3) When threatened, a marbled polecat will arch back its head and bare its teeth, while releasing shrills and short hisses.(2)(4)

Reproduction

Marbled polecats mate from early March through mid-June.(5) Gestation can be a long and irregular process (about 243 to 327 days). It has been noted that parturition takes place between late January and mid-March.(4) By delaying implantation, marbled polecats can time the birth of their offspring for ideal circumstances, such as when prey is plentiful.(6)

There are about 4 to 8 kits in each litter.(4)(5) Kits open their eyes from 38–40 days old. They are weaned at 50–54 days and become independent around 61–68 days.(6)

Diet

Marbled polecats are generalists and opportunistic predators. Their natural diet consists of rodents such as great gerbils, house mice, and ground squirrels, as well as lizards, birds, and insects.(3)

Predators

While information regarding predators of the marbled polecat is limited, they were once sought for their fur. Their fur was generally refereed to as “fitch” or more specifically, “perwitsky” in the fur trade. The 1914 article we reference refers to the marbled polecat as the “Sarmatian mottled polecat”.(7)

In social media

Perhaps the most well-known marbled polecat on social media was one discovered in the trench of Ukrainian soldiers.(8) In the video, the marbled polecat appeared trapped in the trench, until one of the soldiers dropped their bag inside to help it escape. While in the trench, the marbled polecat tires its best to look intimidating by releasing shrills, short hisses, and making bluff charges—clearly indicating that it felt threaten by being approached. However, a second video uploaded to social media around the same time shows a Ukrainian soldier playing with a marbled polecat, as though it were tamed.(9)(10) It is unclear if these videos are of the same animal.

Geographic range

Body length: 29–35 cm / 11.4–13.7 in
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
Subfamily: Ictonychinae
Recognised subspecies(11)

  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. Petroelje, T. 2011. Vormela peregusna (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed February 06, 2021.
  4. Stroganov, S. U. “Carnivorous Mammals of Siberia. Israel Program for Scientific Translations”. (1969): 432-439.
  5. Harrison, David L. “The Mammals of Arabia, Vol II Carnivora, Artiodactyla, Hyracoidea. pub”. Ernest Benn Ltd., London (1968): 349-365.
  6. 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.
  7. Petersen, Marcus. The fur traders and fur bearing animals. Hammond Press, 1914. p.191.
  8. Wyvern The Terrible. YouTube. 30 April, 2023. Ukrainian soldiers rescue rare polecat from trench. Accessed 06 December, 2023.
  9. RR Post 24. YouTube. 24 July, 2023. A Ukrainian soldier play with a very rare animal – Marbled polecat living near its position. Accessed 06 December, 2023.
  10. The Flashback. YouTube. 27 June, 2023. Cute assistant of the Ukrainian soldier. Accessed 06 December, 2023.
  11. Wilson, Don E. & Reeder, DeeAnn M. (Editors) 2005. Vormela peregusna in Mammal Species of the World. – A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference.

#8 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 I. striatus and V. peregusna.

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. 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.(1)

Appearance

The Saharan striped polecat is sometimes confused with the striped polecat, though they are usually smaller and have 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 that 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.

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 are rarely seen in woodlands.(2) 

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

Currently little is known about the mating system of the species. Females generally give birth to 1 to 3 young in spring.(3)

Diet

Their diet consists of eggs, small birds, small mammals, and lizards.(3) The Saharan striped polecat uses its keen sense of smell to track their prey living in burrows, digging them out and then quickly pouncing when pursuing their prey.(2)

Predators

There is little information regarding their predators. However, because of the cultural notion that they might improve male fertility, Saharan striped polecats are frequently captured and exploited in Tunisia. In addition, they may face competition with the least weasel in the most productive habitats.(4)

Geographic range

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

  1. I. l. libycus
  2. I. l. multivittatus
  3. I. l. oralis
  4. I. l. rothschildi
References

  1. Larivière, Serge. Ictonyx striatus. Mammalian species 2002.698 (5 July 2002): 1-5.
  2. Kingdon, J. (1997). The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. Academic Press. p. 229.
  3. Hoath, Richard (2009). A Field Guide to the Mammals of Egypt. Egypt: The American University in Cairo Press. p. 82–84.
  4. Ahmim, M., and E. Do Linh San. Ictonyx libycus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2015: e. T41645A45212347.” (2015).
  5. “Saharan Striped Polecat”. theanimalfiles.com. Accessed 19-03-2020.

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

Photo by markusgmeiner

The striped polecat, also known as the African polecat, zoril, zorille, zorilla, Cape polecat, and African skunk can be found throughout much of central and southern Africa. Despite their latter common name, appearance, and anal spray defence mechanism they are not skunks. In some cases, skunks are misleadingly called polecats probably due to being mistaken for the striped polecat. The striped polecat is also sometimes confused with the African striped weasel.

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.

Habitat

The stripe polecat lives in diverse dry and arid climates.

Behaviour

Striped polecats are solitary and territorial animals, mainly associating with other members of their species for the purpose of mating. They are nocturnal 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.

The striped polecat marks its territory with its feces and through an anal spray. When threatened they spray a foul odour from their anal glands.(1) The spray that is produced temporarily blinds their opponent and causes severe mucous membrane irritation and burning.(1) The striped polecat frequently adopts a deimatic stance with its back arched, rear end facing the opponent, and tail straight up in the air before spraying the foe with this noxious fluid.(2)

Reproduction

The gestation period is approximately 4 weeks after conception. During this stage, the mother builds a nest for her young. The kits are born blind, deaf, and naked, making them extremely vulnerable.(1) In the summer, one to five young are born per litter. Because the mother has six teats, she can support up to six babies at once if food is available.(2) The mother protects her young until they are old enough to be independantf .(1)

Diet

One of the main differences between a striped polecat and a skunk, is skunks are omnivores, while the striped polecat is carnivorous. They consume insects, lizards, snakes, birds, bird eggs, beetles, and centipedes, but their main diet consists of rodents.(4)

Predators

There is little information regarding predators of the striped polecat. However, they are reportedly pestered by domestic dogs and may be considered as prey by larger African carnivores.(4)

Geographic range

Body length: 60–70 cm / 24–28 in (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
Subfamily: Ictonychinae
Recognised subspecies(5)

  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. Estes, Richard D. The behavior guide to African mammals: including hoofed mammals, carnivores, primates. Univ of California Press, 2012. p. 419 – 424.
  2. Stuart & Stuart (2001). “Field Guide to Mammals of Southern Africa”. Cape Town: Struik Publishing. p. 132.
  3. Hoath, Richard (2009). A Field Guide to the Mammals of Egypt. Egypt: The American University in Cairo Press. p. 85.
  4. Aguilar, W. 2003. Ictonyx striatus (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed February 06, 2021.
  5. Wilson, Don E. & Reeder, DeeAnn M. (Editors) 2005. Ictonyx striatus in Mammal Species of the World. – A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference.

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