Weasels, otter, and mink, oh my!
The Mustelidae is a family that includes living slinkys and sliders: the long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata), ermine or short-tailed weasel (Mustela erminea), least weasel (Mustela nivalis), mink (Mustela vison), and river otter (Lutra canadensis). These slender, long-bodied, short-legged mammals have a distinct bounding track pattern, which can be punctuated, particularly by mink and otter, with belly-sledding behavior in snow. A bounding track pattern is created when these mustelids leap forward with their front paws, their bodies then arch, and their hind paws land in their front paw prints or just behind them. Notice two equally sized prints side by side and/or slightly diagonal, forming a similar trail of two tracks side by side, space, two tracks, space, etc. The size of the track and the space between the tracks, along with habitat, will help determine the specie making the tracks. All New England members of the weasel family, which also includes, marten (Martes americana), and fisher (Martes pennanti), tend to have all five digits registering in the prints they leave behind. There is notable sexual dimorphism in this family: the male mustelid is generally twice the size of the female.
“It’s Slinky! It’s Slinky!”
The flexibility a weasel exhibits, can remind one of a furry slinky toy. These little beings can be most amusing to watch as they move through forest edge: bound bound scamper bound bound dance around in a circle bound bound. You may wonder, what on earth are they doing? They appear to be frolicking to a funky beat inside their head. Perhaps it is a way to distract their prey before they slip into the undergrowth, disappearing from view. Now where did they go? They pop up here, now over there.
Internally the body knows when winter sets in: days shorten, nights lengthen, and the air temperature continues to drop. A distinctive trait of our weosule buddies is that they trade their brown coats for white ones in winter – with one seemingly strange omission on the long-tailed and short-tailed weasels: their black-tipped tail stays black. But why? Black doesn’t blend in with the snowy landscape; surely that would be dangerous for a wee predator to signal its presence to other larger predators. Ah, but the black-tipped tail is a deception. If a hawk looking from above, spies and aims for that tail, the weasel has the best chance at wriggling free from the clasping talons.
Sporting a dark brown glossy coat made this creature prized for their silky fur and spawned the mink coat industry. As with other members of the weasel family, mink males are twice the size of females, male mink weighing 2-3.5 pounds to a female’s 1.5-2 pounds. Mink are opportunistic carnivores, hunting both on land and in water, whereas weasels generally hunt on and in the land and otter hunt in the water.
Once I caught sight of a mink scampering along the edge of a stream. I had been walking across a bridge and movement drew my eyes down to the opposite shore. The mink turned his attention to the ground and started nosing along, sniffing something of interest in the dirt. I watched for a time but could not tell what got the mink so curious. Eventually the mink slipped out of sight and so I went over to investigate. But the ground offered no insight and it remains a mystery what the mink was attempting to ferret out. (Yes, ferrets are weasels too.)
Possessing short limbs and webbed feet, otters swim by propelling themselves with their powerful tails and long undulating bodies. Their water repellent fur keeps them warm and relatively dry and they can close their nostrils and ears while in the water. And they can hold their breath up to 8 minutes!
If you could ask an otter to smile you will see a hefty set of canines. These predators eat a wide variety of meaty delights, from fish to crayfish, frogs to freshwater clams. It is always fascinating to come upon their scat (a.k.a. poop) on the rocks by a pool and see the iridescent scales of a fish or claws of a crayfish.
In winter you can find their slides along the forest floor, usually dipping into a body of water. But not always. The other day, as I was tracking through the forest, I came across otter slides that were nowhere a stream or other body of water. This otter, in getting from one place to another was like a child at play, finding any excuse to scoot on their belly and slide along the snow. And they were not even going downhill; they were sliding along a ridge. Was it conservation of energy? That’s what we humans figure is the reason. But from all that I have witnessed, I think otters, like other animals: humans and crows for example, simply appreciate sledding in the snow.
Otters make a distinctive “ha ha ha” sound, along with other chirps, grunts, and chattering calls. Once, while tracking through the swamp in Satan’s Kingdom (an unincorporated village in Northfield, MA), I heard “ha ha ha” coming from the water. I ducked down and peered out onto the open water. In one eloquent smooth motion, slid a mama otter from the water onto a rock, followed by her pup. They sat and preened for a bit. And then mama and babe slipped off the rock and back below the water.
Winter offers an excellent time to track our mustelid neighbors as they slink and slide about through the snow. So fortify yourself by having a hot beverage and some protein, don winter gear, and head out, into the outside for exploration. Winter blessings.
Into the Outside is a bi-monthly feature in the Ashfield News. This article appears in the January 2020 edition of The Ashfield News.
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