How well do you know your weasels?

Weasels and their kin—a.k.a. members of the mustelid family—represent North America’s largest and most diverse group of carnivores. Get to know them!

The least weasel

The tiny critter—barely bigger than a mouse, with a short tail—is the world’s smallest “true” carnivore—it must eat meat to survive. The stealthy least weasel goes from brown to white sometime between September and November. A white coat acts as camouflage in the winter, keeping the animal safe from predators—and making it easier for it to hunt prey.

The long-tailed weasel

The name says it all: this weasel (it’s about the size of a squirrel) has a tail about half as long as its body. The vicious little carnivore usually hunts chipmunks, mice, and voles, but it will also go after prey five times that size. Like other weasels, it gets a white coat for winter.

The mink

The stinky mink—it produces a liquid defence nearly as reeky as a skunk’s—spends a lot of time in the water. It’s semi-aquatic, with webbed feet and oily, water repelling fur. It’s a strong diver, and can plunge as deep as six metres.

The pine marten

Aww, so cute—like a kitty had a baby with a Pomeranian. But the marten has semi-retractable, razor-sharp claws. It uses them for killing, of course. But mainly for climbing. High in the trees, martens steal birds’ eggs from nests or go after squirrels.

The fisher

Fishers don’t eat much fish, or spend time in the water. The fox-sized, bear-faced mammals are as scrappy as their larger, wolverine cousins, and will even tackle prey that other carnivores avoid, such as porcupines.

The ermine

One of the smallest members of the mustelid family—a tiny physique is handy for pursuing small prey into their underground burrows—it’s also among the stinkiest. Its black tail tip may serve as a warning sign, like a skunk’s white stripe, for predators to stay away. As with least weasels and long-tailed weasels, these guys moult from brown to white for the winter.

The otters

When it comes the mustelid family, otters are probably the most playful and the friendliest. Most cottagers are familiar with river otters, and have probably seen one boldly swim up to canoes, kayaks, or other slow-moving boats. Sea otters are much larger—up to 70 lbs heavier—with a short, flat tail, and the thickest fur of all North American mammals.

The black-footed ferret

Even if you live in its Prairie habitat, you might never see North America’s only native ferret: it’s endangered. (Re-introduction programs in the 1980s saved the species from extinction.) Another Western Canadian mustelid, the American badger, has also struggled to maintain a robust population. This is mostly because of habitat loss. Even if you don’t spot a badger, you can spy evidence of its underground den; look for a 20- or 30-cm hole in the shape of a “D”.

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