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Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Mustelidae
Genus: Martes
Species: M. zibellina
Binomial name
Martes zibellina
Linnaeus, 1758

The sable (Martes zibellina) is a species of marten which inhabits forest environments, primarily in Russia from the Ural Mountains throughout Siberia, in northern Mongolia and China and on Hokkaidō in Japan.[2] Its range in the wild originally extended through European Russia to Poland and Scandinavia.[3] It has historically been harvested for its highly valued fur, which remains a luxury good to this day. While hunting of wild animals is still common in Russia, most fur in the market is now commercially farmed.



The name sable appears to be of Slavic origin and to have entered most Western European via the early medieval fur trade.[4] Thus the Russian соболь (sobol) and Polish soból became the German Zobel, Dutch Sabel; the French zibelline Spanish cibelina, cebellina, Finnish soopeli and Mediaeval Latin zibellina derive from the Italian form (zibellino). The English and Medieval Latin word sabellum comes from the Old French sable or saible.

The term has become a generic description for some black-furred animal breeds, such as sable cats or rabbits, and for the colour black in heraldry.

Description and behaviour

Sables are sexually dimorphic: males measure 38–56 cm in body length, with a tail measuring 9–12 cm, and weighing 880-1800 grams. Females have a body length of 35–51 cm, with a tail length of 7.2-11.5 cm.[5] The winter pelage is longer and more luxurious than the summer coat.[3] Different subspecies display geographic variation in fur colour: fur color ranges from light to dark brown, with individual fur color being lighter ventrally and darker on the back and legs.[6] Japanese sables (known locally as クロテン or kuroten)[7] in particular are marked with black on their legs and feet.[8] Individuals also display a light patch of fur on their throat which may be gray, white, or a pale yellow.[3] The fur is softer and silkier than that of American martens.[9] Sables greatly resemble pine martens in size appearance, but have more elongated heads, longer ears and proportionately shorter tails.[10] Their skulls are similar to those of pine martens, but are larger and more robust with more arched zygomatic arches.[11]

Sables live in burrows near riverbanks and in the thickest parts of woods. These burrows are commonly made more secure by being dug among tree roots.[8] They are good climbers of cliffs and trees.[12] Sables are omnivores, and their diet varies seasonally. In the summer, they eat large numbers of hares and other small vertebrates. In winter, when they are confined in their retreats by frost and snow, they will feed on wild berries. They will also hunt ermine, small weasels and birds. Sometimes, sables will follow the tracks of wolves and bears and feed on the remains of their kills.[8] They will eat molluscs such as slugs, which they rub in the ground in order to remove the mucus. Sables will also eat fish, which they catch with their front paws.[12]


Males will dig metre long shallow grooves in the snow, frequently accompanied with urination.[13] Mating generally occurs between June-August 15, though the date varies geographically.[3][6] When courting, sables will run, jump and "rumble" like cats. Males will fight violently with each other for females.[3] Females will enter estrus in spring. After insemination, the blastocyst does not implant into the uteran wall of the female. Implantation will occur eight months later and embryonic development takes only 25–30 days.[6] Sables give birth in tree hollows, where they build nests composed of moss, leaves and dried grass.[8] The gestation period lasts from 250–300 days with females giving birth to litters ranging in size from 1-7 individuals, but smaller litters of 2-3 individuals are more common. Males will assist females by defending their territories and provide food for them.[13] Sables are born with their eyes closed and are covered in a very thin layer of hair. Newborn cubs weigh between 25-35 grams and average 10 cm in length.[3][6] They will open their eyes after 30–36 days, and leave the nest shortly afterwards.[5][6] The young are weaned and are given regurgitated food at seven weeks of age.[3] They reach sexual maturity at the age of two years.[5]


A Japanese sable, as illustrated in The Illustrated Natural History, 1865
A Russian sable, as illustrated in The Trapper's Guide, 1867. Russian sables are the most valued geographical variation for their fur[9]

In Russia, the sable's distribution is largely the result of mass reintroductions involving 19,000 animals from 1940-1965. Their range extends northward to the limit of trees, and extends southward to 55-60° latitude in western Siberia, and 42° in the mountainous areas of eastern Asia. Their western distribution encompasses the Ural mountains, where they are sympatric with European pine martens. They are also found on sakhalin.[2]

In Mongolia, sables occur in the Altai Mountains and in the surrounding forests of Lake Hovsgol, the latter being contingous with the Trans-Baikal boreal forest region from where the most valuable sable pelts come from.[2]

In China, sables occur in a limited area of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. In northeastern China, sables are now limited to the Daxinganling Mountains. In eastern Heilongjiang, the persistence of sables is suspected in the Xiaoxinganling Mountains.[2]

Sables occur in Hokkaido and on the Korean peninsula.[2]

History of fur use and status

Sable fur-skins in Milan. The price corresponds with the upper coat's abundance of glossy blackness[9]
Pale furred sable pelts

Sable fur has been a highly valued item in the fur trade since the early Middle Ages, and is generally considered to have the most beautiful and richly tinted pelt among martens. Sable fur is unique among furbearers because it retains its smoothness no matter in which direction it is stroked. The fur of other furbearers on the other hand will give an impression of roughness when stroked in the opposite direction of the grain.[14] A wealthy 17th century Russian diplomat once described the sable as "A beast full marvelous and prolific ... a beast that the Ancient Greeks and Romans called the Golden Fleece."[15] Russian sables would typically be skinned over the mouth with no incision being made on the body. The feet would be retained, so as to keep as much fur as possible. Byzantine priests would wear sable for their rituals.[16] In England, sable fur was held with great estimation. Henry I was presented with a wreath of black sable by the Bishop of Lincoln, for no less than £100, a considerable sum at the time.[9] Sable fur was a favourite of Henry VIII, who once received five sets of sable fur worth £400 from Emperor Charles V.[16] Henry later decreed that sable fur was to be worn only by nobles exceeding the rank of viscount.[17] The Russian conquest of Siberia was largely spurred by the availability of sables there. Ivan Grozny once demanded an annual tribute of 30,000 sable pelts from the newly conquered Kazan Tatars, though they never sent more than a thousand, as Russia at the time was unable to enforce the tribute due to wars with Sweden and Poland.[15] The best skins were obtained in Irkutsk, Kamchatka, and Lapland. According to Atkinson's Travels in Asiatic Russia, Bagouzin, on Lake Baikal, was famed for its sables. The fur of this population is a deep jet black with white tipped hair. $80–90 were sometimes demanded by hunters for a single skin.[8] Sable fur would continue to be the most favoured fur in Russia, until the discovery of sea otters in the Kamchatka peninsula, whose fur was considered even more valuable.[15] Sable furs were coveted by the nobility of the Russian Empire, with very few skins ever being found outside the country during that period. Some however would be privately obtained by Jewish traders and brought annually to the Leipzig fair.[8] Sometimes, sable hunting was a job given to convicts exiled to Siberia.[10] Imperial Russian fur companies produced 25,000 skins annually, while the Hudson's Bay Company produced 125,000 sable pelts annually, with nearly nine tenths of the produce being exported to France and Germany. The civic robes of the Lord Mayor and Corporation of London, which were worn on State occasions, were trimmed with sable.[9] As with minks and martens, sables were commonly caught in steel traps.[8] Intensified hunting in Russia in the 19th and early 20th century caused a severe enough decline in numbers that a five year ban on hunting was instituted in 1935, followed by a winter-limited licensed hunt. These restrictions together with the development of sable farms have allowed the species to recolonize much of its former range and attain healthy numbers.[6] The Soviet Union allowed Old Believer communities to continue their traditional way of life on the condition that they hand all sable skins they produced.[18] The collapse of the Soviet Union led to an increase of hunting and poaching in the 1990s, in part because wild caught Russian furs are considered the most luxurious and demand the highest prices on the international market.[19] Currently, the species has no special conservation status according to the IUCN, though the isolated Japanese subspecies M. zibellina brachyurus is listed as "data-deficient"[1]

Because of its great expense, sable fur is typically integrated into various clothes fashions: to decorate collars, sleeves, hems and hats (see, for example the shtreimel). The so-called Kolinsky sable-hair brushes used for watercolor or oil painting are not manufactured from sable hair, but from that of the siberian weasel.


  1. ^ a b Abramov, A. & Wozencraft, C. (2008). Martes zibellina. 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 least concern
  2. ^ a b c d e Harrison, D. J. (editor) (2004). Martens and Fishers (Martes) in Human-Altered Environments: An International Perspective. Springer-Verlag. ISBN 0387225803.  
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Ognev, S. (1962). Mammals of Eastern Europe and Northern Asia. Jerusalem: Israel Program for Scientific Translations.
  4. ^ “sable, n., etymology of” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. Accessed: 11-2-2008
  5. ^ a b c Walker's mammals of the world, Volume 1, Ronald M. Nowak, published by JHU Press, 1999, ISBN 0801857899
  6. ^ a b c d e f (1990) Grizimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals Volume 3. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  7. ^ WILD WATCH: SABLES AND THEIR ILK, Cuteness belies killers' true nature By MARK BRAZIL
  8. ^ a b c d e f g The trapper's guide: a manual of instructions for capturing all kinds of fur-bearing animals, and curing their skins ; with observations on the fur-trade, hints on life in the woods, and narratives of trapping and hunting excursions by Sewell Newhouse, edited by John Humphrey Noyes, published by Oneida Community, 1867
  9. ^ a b c d e The Friend: A Religious and Literary Journal, Volume 32, 1859
  10. ^ a b General zoology, or, Systematic natural history, by G. Shaw, 1800
  11. ^ Catalogue of the contents of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London, Volume 7. Printed by R. Taylor, 1853
  12. ^ a b The Fur Bearing Mammals of the Soviet Union, produced by London's Hudson Bay, in association with v/o sojuzpushnina
  13. ^ a b Tarasov, P. 1975. Intraspecific Relations in Sable and Ermine. Pp. 45-54 in C. King, ed. Mustelids: Some Soviet research. Boston Spa: British Liabrary Lending Division.
  14. ^ A natural history of animals by John Bigland, published by Grigg, Elliot & Co., 1844
  15. ^ a b c The conquest of a continent: Siberia and the Russians by W. Bruce Lincoln, published by Cornell University Press, 2008, ISBN 0801489229
  16. ^ a b Furs and Fur Garments by Richard Davey, published by READ BOOKS, 2008, ISBN 1409719421
  17. ^ A Cyclopedia of Commerce and Commercial Navigation by Isaac Smith Homans, published by Harper & Brothers, 1859
  18. ^ Lost and Found in Russia: Encounters in a Deep Heartland by Susan Richards, published by I B Tauris & Co Ltd (13 May 2009), ISBN-10: 1848850239
  19. ^ Tyler, P. E. (2000-12-27). "Behind the $100,000 Sable Coat, a Siberian Hunter". The New York Times.  

External links

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