Ferrets & Polecats

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

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

Common misconceptions

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

Because of its resemblance to the striped polecat, skunks are sometimes mistakenly called polecats. Skunks are also still frequently mistaken for mustelids. They were once included as a subfamily of Mustelidae, but in the late 1990s skunks were given their own classification, Mephitidae.(3)

References

  1. Newman, C., C. D. Buesching, and J. O. Wolff. “The function of facial masks in” midguild” carnivores.” Oikos 108.3 (2005): 623-633.
  2. Stevens, Martin, and Sami Merilaita, eds. Animal camouflage: mechanisms and function. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  3. Dragoo, Jerry W., and Rodney L. Honeycutt. “Systematics of mustelid-like carnivores.” Journal of Mammalogy 78.2 (1997): 426-443.

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

Photo by J. Michael Lockhart / USFWS

The black-footed ferret, also known as the American polecat, lives in prairies and preys exclusively on prairie dogs, and as such is extremely endangered. This polecat is not closely related to the domestic ferret but has a similar appearance due to its dark legs and mask. Its fur (primarily tan and cream except for the black legs, tail tip, and mask) is much shorter than the European and marble polecats and it has a thinner, slinkier, more weasel-like appearance with its long neck and larger ears. Black-footed ferrets have distinctive white “eye spots’ in the dark mask over their eyes.

Conservation Status: Endangered

(2) European Mink (Mustela lutreola)

Photo by Nicolai Meyer

The European mink, also known as the Russian mink and Eurasian mink, is a semiaquatic species native to Europe. It is genetically a polecat and actually has little in common with the American mink, which it’s often compared with.(1)(2) The two species are similar in colour, but the European mink is slightly smaller, coarser fur and is not as adapted to the wet element as its namesake.(3)(4) 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. 

The European mink is closely related to the European- and steppe polecat, the ferret and the Siberian weasel,(1)(2) and breeding experiments back in the late 1970’s have resulted in a number of hybrids. The most famous is the khonorik—the offspring of a European/steppe polecat and the European mink.(5)

Size: 38-43 cm / 15-17 in (males), 36-41 cm / 14-16 in (females)
Weight: 544-816 g / 1.2-1.8 lb (males), 742 g / 1.6 lb (females)
Lifespan: 6-10 years
Range: Isolated areas of northern Spain and western France. Main range in small pockets of eastern Europe.
Conservation Status: Critically Endangered
References

  1. Davidson, A., Griffith, H. I., Brookes, R. C., Maran, T., MacDonald, D. W., Sidorovich, V. E., Kitchener, A. C., Irizar, I., Villate, I., Gonzales-Esteban, J., Cena, A., Moya, I. and Palazon Minano, S. 2000. Mitochondrial DNA and paleontological evidence for the origin of endangered European mink, Mustela lutreola Archived 20 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine. Animal Conservation 3: 345–357.
  2. Marmi, Josep, Juan Francisco López‐Giráldez, and Xavier Domingo‐Roura. “Phylogeny, evolutionary history and taxonomy of the Mustelidae based on sequences of the cytochrome b gene and a complex repetitive flanking region.” Zoologica Scripta 33.6 (2004): 481-499.
  3. 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).
  4. Youngman, Phillip M. “Mustela lutreola.” Mammalian Species 362 (1990): 1-3.
  5. Khonorik: Hybrids between Mustelidae. Russian Ferret Society. Retrieved 9 May 2011.

(3) European Polecat (Mustela putorius)

Photo by Malene Thyssen

The European polecat, also known as the common ferret, is a species native to western Eurasia and north Morocco. They typically have brown fur, with darker, sometimes black legs, tail, and underside, a dark mask across the eyes, and white around the nose and mouth. Their fur is shaggy, with dark guard hairs over a lighter undercoat, given them a grizzled appearance. Their tails taper to a point and are about one third the length of their body.

European polecats are so adept at hunting in burrows and tunnels that they have been domesticated to hunt rodents and rabbits. The domesticated European polecat is known as a ferret, and while ferrets were initially albino (white with pink eyes), pet ferrets are now available in a variety of colors, including typical wild polecat markings with a dark mask, legs and tail (referred to as “sable” coloration). Ferrets’ noses can be pink, speckled, dark brown, or black, while wild European polecats usually have black noses. The closely related steppe polecat is very similar in appearance to the European polecat, although its fur tends to be lighter, with fewer dark markings.

Size: 35.5-47.7 cm / 14-18 in (males), 27.9-40.6 cm / 11-16 in (females)
Weight: 997-1497 g / 2.2-3.3 lb (males, middle Europe), 635-816 g / 1.4-1.8 lb (females, middle Europe)
Lifespan: 5-10 years
Range: Widespread throughout most of Europe to western Russia.
Conservation Status: Least Concern

(4) Ferret (Mustela putorius furo)

Photo by Moody Ferret

Ferrets typically have brown, black, white, or mixed fur. They have an average length of 51 cm (20 in) including a 13 cm (5.1 in) tail, weigh about 1.5–4 pounds (0.7–2 kg), and have a natural lifespan of 7 to 10 years. Ferrets are sexually dimorphic predators with males being substantially larger than females.

Behavioral misconceptions

Oversimplified terminologies have contributed to some people assuming average house pet ferrets are aggressive like the European polecat or weasels, but the characteristics of house pet ferrets are profoundly different from that of wild mustelids. Although “weasel” is a common nickname for the ferret, ferrets are not weasels. Calling a domesticated ferret a weasel would be similar to calling a domesticated dog a wolf. Ferrets have been domesticated for over two-thousand years,(1) and unlike their wild European polecat cousin or distant weasel cousins, ferrets have lost many of their natural instincts and cannot reproduce or survive in the wild.(2) According to the American Ferret Association, they wouldn’t be capable of surviving for more than a few days. This applies mainly to ferrets living in the United States and other areas where they are solely bred as house pets. In Europe and other parts of the world some ferrets are bred for hunting (known as ferreting).(3) These ferrets have a much higher chance of surviving in the wild if they escape or are abandoned, and can breed with European polecats, resulting in ferret-polecat hybrids.(4) Ultimately, there is a profound personality and adaptive difference between the domesticated house pet ferret, and ferrets that were raised for hunting.

Unfortunately, average house pet ferrets are prone to the same broad negative misunderstandings and fearmongering as other mustelids 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,(5) but similar incidents have also been reported about dogs;(6) making these unfortunate events likely isolated cases of parental or owner neglect, rather than general behavior. Due to owner irresponsibility and several other misconceptions about the domesticated house ferret, they are banned as pets in several areas across the world. How a ferret was raised, trained or cared for should always be taken into consideration. Isolated cases in behavior should never be generalized.

Size: 46-61 cm / 18-24 in (males),  46 cm / 18 in (females)
Weight: 1.5-2.5 kg / 3-5 lb (males), 0.75-1.5 kg / 1.5-3 lb (females)
Lifespan: 7-10 years
Range: Domesticated
Conservation Status: Domesticated
References

  1. Bulloch, M. J., and V. V. Tynes. “Ferrets.” Behaviour of Exotic Pets. Wiley-Blackwell Publishing Ltd., USA (2010).
  2. American Ferret Association, Inc. Frequently Asked Questions. “Is the ferret a wild animal?”
  3. 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.
  4. Ferrets: New Zealand animal pestsDepartment of Conservation. New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC). 11 August 2006. Archived from the original on 2014-07-24. Retrieved 25 July 2014.
  5. 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.
  6. Kaye, Alison E., Jessica M. Belz, and Richard E. Kirschner. “Pediatric dog bite injuries: a 5-year review of the experience at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.” Plastic and reconstructive surgery 124.2 (2009): 551-558.

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

Photo credit unknown.

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

Steppe polecats live in several burrows in its territory. These burrows are usually not dug by steppe polecat, but instead uses those of mammals it has hunted.(2)(3)(4)(5) Males have territories near female territories, and the sexes only socialize for mating from March till April.(3) They hunt ground squirrels, rabbits, lizards, frogs, birds, insects and fruit; but they are renowned for their skill in hunting rodents. Steppe polecats play a major role in controlling rodent populations; which can be hazardous to both agriculture and human health. However, they are also trapped by locals in their region for their meat and fur.(3)

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

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


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

(6) Marbled Polecat (Vormela peregusna) – Genus Vormela

Photo by  Laszlo Szabo-Szeley © AVESTOURS

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

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

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

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

(7) Saharan Striped Polecat (Ictonyx libycus) – Genus Ictonyx

Photo credit unknown.

The Saharan striped polecat, also known as the Saharan striped weasel, Libyan striped weasel, and the North African striped weasel is a mustelid of northern Africa.(1) It is sometimes confused with the striped polecat, though it is usually smaller and has as a circular white mask, compared to the striped polecat’s three white facial spots.(2)

The taxonomy of its genus is controversial: Poecilictis, a sister genus, is often considered under Ictonyx.(3) 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.(3)

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

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

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

(8) Striped Polecat / Zorilla (Ictonyx striatus) – Genus Ictonyx

Photo credit unknown.

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

Unlike skunks, striped polecats have three white spots on the head, and four distinct stripes along the length of their bodies to the tips of their tail.(1)  One of the main differences between a striped polecat and a skunk, is skunks are omnivores, while the striped polecat is carnivorous. Striped polecats consume insects, lizards, snakes and centipedes, but its main diet consists of rodents.(2)

The striped polecat is a solitary, aggressive and territorial animal – mainly associating with other members of its species for the purpose of mating. They are nocturnal animals,(3) and spend most of their time on the ground and live in the burrows that they dig, but often sleep in hollow trees or rock crevices. When threatened, they spray a foul odor from their anal glands.(2) It is believed that the striped polecat’s spray may be more potent than that of the skunk’s.

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

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

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