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Jessi tackles weasels! Not literally. So what is the difference between a ferret and a weasel? What about mink, fishers, stoats, and polecats? And how does the classification of wild species help pet owners?

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[theme music]

Weasels! That's what we're talking about today. I've learned that the word "weasel" conjures up a different image for different people. And it's really not surprising because it's such a broad common term to describe a lot of different animals.

Weasel, ferret, stoat, marten, mink, polecat! Let's figure out what 
we're actually talking about here.

The term weasel is used to describe a small carnivorous mammal, short legs on a long body. And all the animals that belong in this description are in the family Mustelidae. And that's commonly called the weasel family. It's dominated by our small weasel friends, but it also includes animals like badgers, wolverines, and otters among others.

So to get the little guys on their own, we move to the genus Mustela. Mink, polecats, weasels, ferrets, and stoats are in one big happy family. Or, genus, we're talking about genus here. Mustela. So this is all fine and good for classification purposes, but we still don't know the actual difference between say, a weasel, and a domesticated ferret.

So let's get down to it. There are currently seventeen species in the Mustela genus, and ten of them have weasel in their common name. The term weasel can correctly be used to describe any of the animals in the Mustelidae family or the Mustela genus, but it's the specific name for the smallest species in this group, the least weasel. And these guys are super cute. And they hail from North America, North Africa, but mostly Eurasia. And this little guy has become pretty internet famous for his fancy riding skills. 

Another in the Mustela genus is the short-tailed weasel, better known as the stoat. And these guys have a very similar range of the least weasel, except they were introduced to New Zealand where they have caused devastating effects on the natural environment there. They are most well known for their ability to grow a white fur coat in the winter. They're beautiful, and that's when people refer to them as ermines. So, we have three names for the same animal. Which isn't confusing at all.

So the next in line is the mink. Now, it's going to get a little hairy here because we have two different kinds of animals that are commonly referred to as the mink. We have the European mink and the American mink. Now the European mink goes along with what we have been going on so far, they're in the Mustelidae family and the Mustela genus because of their long slender body and tail and short legs, but now we're going to go on a detour.

The American mink. It still belongs in the Mustelidae family, but it has it's own genus, Neovision. And that's due to its stouter body and thicker tail. The also have a more developed skull, which has become more specialized for carnivore, meaning they have a stronger jaw and longer canines. 

So now I think is a good time to throw in the Marten, because it's similar to the American mink in that it's part of the Mustelidae family but has it's own genus, Martes.

So, since we're talking about confusing classification, let's throw in a fun word, "polyphyletic". This word is of Greek origin and it means many races. It's used to describe a group that contains animals that look similar or have similar phenotypes, but they didn't derive these characteristics from common ancestry. This concept is more commonly know as convergent evolution. 

Further study into the DNA of the genus Martes reveals that this group is polyphyletic. The fisher, which is currently classified in the Martes genus is actually more closely related to badgers then other Martens. I love when the- learning new things it's - nature's so convoluted that whenever we try to put it into a box, something always spills out. It's so exciting.

So that was a lot of classification and clarification, but we need to know all of that because, it tells us that not every animal that's called a weasel is going to have the same behaviors or the same adaptations. So far the species we've talked about are pretty solitary and they have strict territorial claims. But let's go all the way back to the beginning, family Mustelidae, genus Mustele, and now let's move on to probably the most well known species, putorius. Mustele putorius, more commonly known as the European polecat with the subspecies Mustela putorius furo, the domesticated ferret. These guys originally came from Northern Europe, and western Eurasia. 

So why do we care about all this classification? Well, we've domesticated a species that now cohabitates with humans, and I feel it's our responsibility to learn their natural history, so if we choose to we can give them care according to their natural needs. 

Ferrets were first recorded by Aristophanes in 450 BCE and Aristotle by 350 BCE. So we have some serious history with these guys. In the first century of the common era Greeks and Romans were using ferrets to scare rabbits out of their burrows and soon after that they were actually released onto the Balearic Islands to control rabbit populations, which apparently were causing widespread famine. The ferrets were muzzled and sent down the rabbit burrows to scare the rabbits up were men and dogs were waiting. I guess thanks ferrets? For saving the day. It's called "ferreting".

So when did we actually domesticate ferrets? Well, we're not actually sure when, but considering why humans were interacting with ferrets so closely in the first place, it most likely happened on the Iberian Peninsula, where the European rabbit first originated. Those pesky famines. 

When the animal becomes domesticated several behavioral and physiological traits change. These include the ability to live amicably in social groups, where their wild counterparts might not. They have increased fertility and multiple fertile cycles annually. They become slower, calmer, and less defensive. This will make the domesticated ferret easier to keep in groups, breed rapidly for desired traits, and make it better pet material without the fear of them aggressively biting or scent marking. Which smells a bit like skunk, by the way.

If you look at the whole weasel family, the European polecat is the perfect candidate for producing a domesticated species. They were in the right location when humans needed help, they're gregarious, and they're much less territorial then other weasels. 

So humans domesticated the European polecat to help control rabbit populations and other nuisance animals. But like so many other domesticated species, they found a place in our hearts, and some are solely kept for their companionship. 

Now, even though ferrets are domesticated, that doesn't mean they are completely different from their wild counterparts. They're still obligate carnivores, meaning they eat exclusively meat, and they're active, and they like to seek out things that they can chase and "kill". While they tolerate and even enjoy human company, they do need to be looked at from the perspective of a ferret, and not a human. So please do your research before considering taking a ferret or polecat into your home. And make sure you understand that they are very crafty and athletic predators. And they don't mix well with domesticated prey animals. 

This episode was brought to you by a very special viewer and his fiends, the ferrets and polecats of the Hundred Acre Wood: Boobear, Tigerten, Penpen, Honeybee, Phil, Kanga, and Roo. 

Thank you for watching and I hope you understand and appreciate the weasel a little more now. If you'd like to go on adventure with us every week, you can subscribe to our youtube channel Animal Wonders Montana, or you can ask me questions throughout the week on twitter, tumblr, and Facebook. Thanks guys.

[Outro note]

Hi guys, welcome back to Animal Wonders, I'm Jessi, and I kind of run the show around here. Kinda.