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Mountain Weasel
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Mustelidae
Subfamily: Mustelinae
Genus: Mustela
Species: M. altaica
Binomial name
Mustela altaica
Pallas, 1811

Contents

Natural History

The Mountain Weasel (Musetla altaica),also known as the pale weasel or Altai weasel, is a species of weasel that prefer to live in environments that are usually high in altitude (11,480 feet or more) as well as rocky tundra and grassy woodlands covered in green vegetation.[2] They rest in rock crevices, tree trunks, and abandoned burrows of other animals or the animals they previously hunted. The home range size of this animal is currently unknown. Geographical distribution for this species lies in parts of Asia from Kazakhstan, Tibet, and the Himalayas through to Mongolia, northeastern China, southern Siberia, Korea, and also some parts of Russia. The most common area for this species, however, is Ladakh, India. The conservation status, according to the IUNC, is near threatened because it is considered to be in a significant decline and requires monitoring maining because of habitat and resource loss.

Physical Description

There is slight sexual dimorphism between the sexes of the Altai weasel.[3] The male body length from head to body is about 8.5-11 inches with his tail adding on about 4-6 inches. Males can weigh 8-12 ounces.[3] On the other hand, the females are slightly smaller with their head to body length measuring around 8.5-10 inches with their tail adding 3.5-5 inches and they weigh around 4-8 ounces.This species undergoes seasonal molts during the spring and autumn. The summer coat consists of fur that is gray to gray-brown with some light yellow while the winter fur is more of a dark yellow with some brown. In both coats, the under belly is pale yellow to creamy white.The upper head between the muzzle and ears is usually darker gray-brown. The tail may be more rufous than the back. the summer fur is gray to gray-brown with some light yellow. Their lips are white and the chin has grayish brown vibrissae.[3]

Reproduction

Overall, these animals are thought to be solitary animals except when mating.[3] During mating, the exact mating system for these animals is unknown but by comparing to other species in the same genus is can be presumed they are polygynous. In polygynous groups, there is usually 1 male and multiple females. They are iteroparous which means they can reproduce more than once throughout their lifetimes like most other mammals and animals. The mountain weasel breeds once a year. Males are found to fight severely for the access to females. The mating occurs around February or March and they young are usually born around May. The gestation period is 30-49days. Although, these periods of gestation and birth can be altered because the animal is capable of delayed implantation which means that the animal can breed and the egg is fertilized but that fertilized egg does not attach to the endometrium in the mothers uterus to continue pregnancy. This happens when resources are not available to the animal and therefore may not have the right amount of energy to undergo the pregnancy or be able sufficiently feed the young. The litter size is about 1-8 young. The offspring are born altricial, require nourishment and dependence on the mother, eyes are closed and their fur not well developed. Lactation lasts about 2 months and after lactation the young become independent but remain with their litter mates until fall. Young are able to breed in the following season when they are just under a year of age.[3]

Behavior

The mountain weasel is capable of climbing, running,and swimming.[3] Their long bodies and short legs allow them to be very agile. They are very quick but light on their feet. They move with ease and are nimble. The Altai weasel is generally nocturnal but may hunt during the daylight hours. As was mentioned before they are solitary animals except when mating. The species communicate with each other through visual and vocal communication. This animal has extremely good vision,therefore it is possible to visually communicate. They also communicate by sound to warn of a possible predator, to protect their territories, and can also use it when mating. When threatened, they emit a loud chirring sound and excrete a foul and pungent odor from their anal glands.[4]

Food Habits

The mountain weasels are strict carnivores unlike some other animals in the suborder Canifornia that are omnivores. The primarily feed on pikas and voles which also leads them to have an important ecological role in reducing or limiting the population numbers of these two rodents. Along with the pikas and voles, they are also known to eat muskrats, rabbits, ground squirrels, small birds, lizards, frogs, fish, and insects.[2]

Predation

Although there are been no reported predators for this species, it can be assumed that their main predator are large birds.[2] Some terrestrial predators could include wolves and foxes. However, the Altai weasel is a fierce animal and does not go down without a fight, therefore, most predators usually look elsewhere for an easier prey. The average lifespan of these animals is about 7–10 years.

Threats

Some threats that caused the weasel to be considered near-threatened include habitat change which is mainly caused by the continuous development by humans.[5] This leads to reduced habitats for the weasel and also adds other dangers such as roads and cars that can run over or hit the animal. Overgrazed land is also a main concern. The land on which weasel lives and hunts is continuously been overgrazed by domestic bovids such as cows, goats, and sheep. This could also be connected with the human development. As human developments increase open land areas for grazing are decreasing causing herds to come back to grazing lands more frequently than before. The overgrazing causes the prey of the weasel to diminish because they have no hiding spots to make home and the food they eat is intensely reduced. Therefore, if the prey have nothing to eat or places to live they are reduced in numbers causing the weasels to have reduced food resources. Reduction in prey is also in part to poisoning of its main food the pika. The pika is considered a pest because it interferes with the food and vegetation for livestock, therefore to rid of or control numbers they use poisoning to get rid of them. Because of this, resources are drastically reduced and the poisoning also can poison the animals that eat the prey such as the weasel.

Conservation

Conservation is the act or intention to protect and preserve environmental resources and wildlife. The truth is that there is continuous human development which decreases the amount of land that is left over for the wildlife. Therefore, it is important to set aside land or protect existing lands to protect and preserve not only the wildlife but the resources they need to survive. There are many organizations that protect wildlife such as the Altai weasel. Another important issue with conservation is to the message out to public.[6]

The species is listed in appendix III of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wildlife fauna and flora) The category it is included in consists of 45 species that are protected in at least one country which has asked for assistance in controlling the trade of that animal to safeguard resources for the future. The mountain weasel is also listed in the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 in schedule II part II by the government of India which states that the animal receives absolute protection and offenders against this are prescribed the highest of penalties.Penalties may include 3–7 years of imprisonment or a $25,000 fine.[7]

In order to initiate a plan to set a nature reserve there are some requirements such as construction, staffing, access development, and research and monitoring with the species it intends to protect and preserve.[5] Sometimes, it’s difficult to achieve all of these requirements. For example, there was a proposal in China to designate Yeniugou and Xiugou valleys as nature reserves. Unfortunately, the plans were denied by the authorities because they viewed it as an attempt to direct the government funds to Golmud, China where these valleys are located.[5]

However, there is a successful nature reserve that includes the Altai weasel in the country of Kazakhstan. The West Altai State Nature Reserve was created to preserve and protect the ecosystem of the mountains and Altai forests it surrounds. It is the biggest nature reserve in Kazakhstan and includes about 52 species of mammals including the Altai weasel and also the food of the weasel, the pika.[8]


Although there doesn’t seem to be a specific conservation strategy or program dedicated to the Altai weasel there are many other programs that it is included in or gains advantage from. An example would be the Kazakhstan nature reserve that protects many different species. Also, programs that protect the food that the weasel eats also add to protecting the weasel. Nature reserves that protect its main food, pikas, help increase numbers of food resources. Sanjiangyuan, Changtang and Kekexili nature reserves in China protect the pika and therefore help protect the weasel by increasing it food availability. Another approach to conserving this animal would be to review conservation strategies of other species in the same genus as the Altai weasel. An example would be Mustela lutrola, or the European mink. Its decline is populations are similar to the Altai weasel in that it’s primarily caused by habitat destruction but also from infection and disease. One program was established in Russia to help conserve this species but captive breeding and reintroduction.The goal of the plan was to breed minks in captivity research stations.[9] Once born the animals were trained to swim, build dens, and hunt. The animals were then reintroduced into the wild to live and reproduce. There are problems with transforming captive breeder into a successful wildlife population. One main problem is the adaptation to captivity. It changes some behavioral and morphological characteristics of the animal such as their lack of behavior towards predators. To fix this problem, it was recommended that they minimize the number of generations in captivity. They used cryopreservation of gametes and embryos. Using the cryopreservation and recent cloning technologies are considerations for reproducing and reintroducing the minks into the wild to preserve the species population. This approach to conserving the species could also work for the Altai weasel. This could be a possible future conservation strategy for the Altai weasel. Another possible strategy could include putting aside passageways in between grazing lands for the weasel to be able to pass through and in between woodlands to capture its food without disturbing the grazing lands of the domestic herds. Being able to feed and interact with the domestic grazers would take cooperation and interest of the farmers.

Although the weasel is not considered endangered it is near threatened and deserves the same amount of interest and concern as the endangered animals. Because it is near threatened, now is the time to do something about it. When there are enough populations to work with to prevent them from becoming endangered. Since there are no current or specific conservation strategies for this animal it is even more liable for becoming endangered, but if the strategies that were discussed in this paper initiated and carried out, the animal could be prevented from becoming endangered.

References

  1. ^ Abramov, A., Wozencraft, C. & Ying-xiang, W. (2008). Mustela altaica. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Downloaded on 21 March 2009. Database entry includes a brief justification of why this species is of near threatened
  2. ^ a b c Allen,G.M. (1938). "Mammals of China and Mongolia". American Museum of Natural History 1.  
  3. ^ a b c d e f King, Carolyn. (1989). The Natural History of Weasels and Stoats.  
  4. ^ Stroganov, S. (1969). "Carnivorous Mammals of Siberia". IPST Press.  
  5. ^ a b c Harris, R.B & Loggers. (2004). "Status of Tibetan plateau mammals in Yeniugou,China.". Wildl.Biol 10: 91–99.  
  6. ^ S. Jacobson, . (1995). Conserving Wildlife.  
  7. ^ “Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India. “The Indian Wildlife Protection Act of 1972". 1993. http://www.envfor.nic.in/legis/wildlife/wildlife1.htm.  
  8. ^ "West Altai State Nature Reserve". http://www.kazakhstan.orexca.com/west_altai_reserve_kazakhstan.shtml.  
  9. ^ S Amstislavsky, H Lindeberg, J Aalto and MW Kennedy. (2008). Conservation of the European mink (Mustela lutreola): focus on reproduction and Reintroduction. http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdf?vid=6&hid=112&sid=cb54a0d3-0e2d-4950-aa78-b193a9e16e83%40sessionmgr112.  
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