The Mustela erminea stoat belongs to the mustelidae family. In the same genus with him are weasels and ferrets. Small animals spend their lives on the ground or climb trees, preying on small warm-blooded, sometimes invertebrates.
Origin of the species and description
A detailed description of the species was first given by Linnaeus in 1758. This is a small predator with a long and flexible body, on short legs with light and sharp claws. A relatively short head with a triangular muzzle sits on a movable neck, which is crowned with rounded wide ears. The tail is of moderate length, but in some subspecies, such as the long-tailed stoat, it is larger than half the body.
Fossil remains of animals were found in Western Europe in the layers of the late Pliocene, in North America – in the middle Pleistocene. In the Upper Quaternary deposits are found in England, France, Poland, Crimea, North. Caucasus (Matuzka cave), Altai (Denisov cave). All in. In America, the remains found belong to the penultimate glaciation. The sizes of predators in cold periods are much smaller than in warm ones.
Description of 35 subspecies is given. In Russia, nine are more common. They differ in some morphometric characteristics, and outwardly — by size and color of summer fur:
- northern – medium, dark brown;
- Russian – medium, from dark brown to reddish;
- Tobolsk – the largest, brown;
- Berengian – medium, from light brown to yellowish;
- Caucasian – small, brick-brown;
- Fergana – smaller than the previous one, brown-yellow or grayish;
- Altai – smaller than Fergana, reddish-brown;
- Transbaikal – small, dark brown;
- Shantar – smaller than Transbaikal, dark brown.
The subspecies of these mustelids from Sakhalin and the Kuriles has not been determined either, probably it belongs to the subspecies common on the Japanese islands.
Appearance and features
The ermine has long been famous for its snow-white fur. His fur coat has this color in winter, only the end of the tail is black. Sometimes the abdomen has a yellowish tint. The hairline at this time is thick, dense, but not long. The color of the tip of the tail does not change with the change of seasons. The animal itself in the summer has a two-tone color with a clear border. The tail, as well as the top of the head, back, sides, outer side of the legs — brown, with different shades. Abdomen, throat, upper lip, chest, hands are white. Summer cover is slightly less than winter.
- body length – 17-26 cm;
- tail – 6-11 cm;
- weight – 50-180 g.
- body length – 20-32 cm;
- tail – 7-13 cm;
- weight – 110-260 g.
The animal runs well, knows how to swim well, although it does not strive for this, it also climbs trees infrequently. This predator, although not great, but has a vicious character, he is extremely brave. In males, the area where he constantly hunts is 2-3 times larger than in females. During the day, he runs a distance of up to 15 km, but for the most part does not hunt, but marks and protects the territory. Females move less, their range is 2-3 km.
When excited, the animal begins to chirp, bark, and hiss loudly. When someone approaches a hole with a brood, the female squeals menacingly.
Anal glands are located under the tail of the beast. Through their ducts, a secret with a specific pungent odor is released, with which the mammal marks the territory. The babies of this species of the weasel family move closely behind the mother, nose to tail, lining up in a chain. The strongest cub is always ahead. If someone falls behind, then those who are bigger pull him up by the ear.
Where does the ermine live?
The distribution area of this mammal is very wide — this is the entire European part, up to the Pyrenees and the Alps, the Caucasus Mountains. In Asian territory, it is found everywhere to the south of Kazakhstan, the Pamirs, the Altai Mountains, the north of Mongolia and northeastern China, the islands of Hokkaido and Honshu. In North America, the stoat has settled as far as Maryland, in the regions of the Great Lakes, Saskatchewan. Over the mountains of the Cordillera, he crossed into California, to its middle part and to the north of New Mexico. To the north, he lives up to the coast of the Arctic, is found on the Arctic and Canadian archipelagos, the shores of Greenland (north and east).
The small predator was brought to New Zealand to fight the breeding rabbits, but the nimble animal, not finding natural enemies there, not only coped with the eared thief of crops, but also switched to endemic birds – kiwi. These birds cannot fly and lay eggs in nests on the ground, and stoats mercilessly destroy them.
In Russia, our hero lives along the entire coast of the Arctic Ocean, on the New Siberian Islands. In the south, the range reaches the north of the Black Sea region, goes along the lower reaches of the Don and to the mouth of the Volga. There are isolated habitats in the Elbrus region, in Ossetia, and then everywhere, up to the southern and eastern borders of the country, on Sakhalin and the Kuril ridge.
What does an ermine eat?
This predator is an excellent hunter, he uses different ways to get food.
Most of the diet of this mustelid species is occupied by rodents:
- vole mice;
- forest mice;
- lemmings ;
Also, the animal hunts birds and amphibians, does not neglect reptiles, destroys nests of birds, catches fish, insects, and eats berries. It even attacks capercaillie and hazel grouse. In some cases, it feeds on carrion. He hunts for mouse-like rodents, chasing them on the ground, in burrows, in deadwood and under snow. Jumps from behind and from above and bites the back of the head. With a large number of rodents, it destroys more of them than it eats, making reserves. For courage and arrogance, he has no equal in nature. He attacks animals and birds that are many times larger than him, he can even throw himself at a person.
The predator hunts rabbits using interesting tactics. Seeing a victim in the distance, the ermine begins to bounce high, fall, ride. A curious rabbit looks at the “crazy” animal with interest. He, bouncing and circling, gradually approaches the intended goal. Having reached the minimum distance, our hero pounces on the rabbit, clutching the back of his head with a death grip.
Character and lifestyle features
Ermine settled in different climatic zones, but prefers places with water sources. In the tundra, it can be found on coastal meadows and on the slopes of river valleys. In the forests, these are floodplain zones of streams, the outskirts of swampy places, on the edges, clearings, clearings, in places overgrown with shrubs, but you will not see it in the forest more often. In the steppes and forest-steppes, he also prefers the shores of water bodies, settles in ravines, in birch groves, in pine forests. Often it can be found close to rural housing, in cemeteries, garden plots. In the Caucasus Mountains, he lives in alpine meadows (3 thousand meters above sea level), in Altai – in stony placers.
The animal does not make holes, but occupies underground rodent galleries for shelter. The nesting chamber is insulated with dry leaves and wool. It also settles in mountain crevices, under stumps and roots, in heaps of deadwood and windfall, occupies hollows. In winter, arranges in the same places temporary beds – shelters. An individual plot can be about 10 hectares, sometimes up to 200 hectares.
An active lifestyle leads mainly at night, or at dusk. In a day, he has 4-5 such periods, the total time is about five hours. The animal hunts for about 30-60 minutes, and after eating, it rests. In winter, during heavy snowfalls or frosts, if there is a supply of food, the ermine does not leave the shelter for several days. Animals live 2-3 years, dying from their natural enemies. In captivity, their lifespan can reach up to six years.
Examining their hunting territory, the animal shows curiosity. It can catch the eye of a person, and when it sees it, it jumps up on a hill, stands upright and looks at it, assessing the degree of danger.
Social structure and reproduction
Females and males live separately and settled. Males are polygamous. In mid-March, they begin the rut, which stretches until September. Females carry offspring from 240 to 393 days. The variation in the duration of pregnancy is caused by a latent pause. During this period, the embryo does not attach to the wall of the uterus. Such a mechanism is provided by nature so that the offspring can appear at the most favorable time. More often in a litter there are from 6-8 cubs, this figure ranges from two to 18. The weight of babies is 0.8-2.6 g. At birth, they are blind and deaf, there is a noticeable narrowing behind the front paws on the body.
The ear canals open by the month, the eyes — later for 4-10 days. Milk teeth appear in babies in 2-3 weeks. Their change to permanent ones begins on the fortieth day after birth, the complete replacement occurs on the 70th day. Newborns appear with a noticeable mane around the neck, which disappears by the month. The mother takes care of the children, at first she rarely leaves them. Comes out of the hole only to eat.
By about one and a half months, the cubs reproduce characteristic sounds, begin to show aggression. Their mother teaches them how to hunt. The kids are constantly playing with each other. Going out for a walk from the hole, they move after their mother. After two months, the ermine babies begin to leave the hole. By this time, they are almost catching up with adults in size. Sexual maturity of males occurs at the age of one year. Females mature very early, the first estrus occurs in them on the 17th day from birth. They can be covered before they see the light.
Newborns immediately show the ability to huddle together. This reflex, by which they cling tightly to each other, helps them to keep warm. This way they feel more secure. If they are separated, then they will again climb, squeak and cling to each other. The reflex disappears by the time the animals begin to see clearly.
The ermine's natural enemies
A small representative of mustelids has many enemies, first of all, its larger counterparts: sable, ferret, weasels, mink. They can survive the stoat from its plots by preying on it. Competitors of our hero for food supply also pose a threat. Since with a lack of food, he has to migrate. These are, first of all, the closest relatives – solong and weasel, birds of prey: small species of falcon and owl. The number of a small predator has greatly decreased in the Ob valley due to the intensive resettlement of Siberian Siberians.
Foxes are a danger, in the tundra arctic foxes prey on a small mammal. During the day, the animal can be grabbed by crows, golden eagles, at night – by owls. From some animals, an ermine can hide on a tree and sit out there. During migrations, the animal, overcoming water barriers, often becomes the prey of large fish: taimen, pike. Parasites can cause death of animals. In warm, rainy summer periods, they eat amber snails, in which larvae of scriabingilus live, and worms infect this mustelid species.
Population and species status
Usually the ermine lives in one place, but when there is a lack of food, it travels long distances. It has been noted that with an abundance of small rodents – the main prey of a predator, it can also migrate over long distances. This mammal is characterized by seasonal movements. Significant jumps can occur in numbers, changing dozens of times — from 30 to 190. It depends on the availability of food, the disappearance of water sources or floods, fires, animal diseases and infestations with worms.
This type of marten has a strong, silky snow-white fur. It was he who has always been the object of fishing. The animal is small, for one fur coat or fur mantle you need to catch about 200 individuals. In the 17th century, a furrier was accused in an English court. He protested the decision of the guardian of the law and won by proving that the ermine mantle of the servant of Themis was fake. Since the mammal is aggressive and destroys voles in large numbers, a ban on its hunting was even introduced on Sakhalin. Hunting rodents, carriers of diseases dangerous to humans, he is of great benefit.
Ermine can be attributed to one of the most numerous mustelids in Russia. Especially if you take into account the areas that it occupies throughout the country. The approximate number of animals in the Russian Federation is more than two million copies.
The largest population, about 60% is found in the Far East and Eastern Siberia, 20% is in Yakutia. In the north of the European part and Western Siberia, another 10% of predators live, especially a lot of them in the forest-steppes. The entire forest-tundra zone of the northern regions is densely populated.
Snowy and frosty winters, floods and fires affect the number of mammals. Since the middle of the last century, the number of carriers of precious fur began to decline due to the active development of land for crops, the use of herbicides and pesticides. In this regard, the animal lost its habitual territories, especially floodplains, where reservoirs arose.
In connection with the sad New Zealand experience, the IUCN included the stoat among the dangerous invasive animals. In recent years, about 100-150 thousand skins of precious fur have been mined, which indicates a decrease in the population, since more specimens were harvested earlier. On the other hand, a decrease in the volume of prey may be due to a change in traditional methods of hunting small game, the loss of skills and centuries of experience. Ermine very easily adapts to different conditions. The decline in fishing should be the impetus for taking measures to monitor the causes and possible problems in the distribution and reproduction of ermine.