Stoat: Wikis


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Mustela erminea
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Mustelidae
Subfamily: Mustelinae
Genus: Mustela
Species: M. erminea
Binomial name
Mustela erminea
Linnaeus, 1758
Range map
Pope Benedict XVI in ermine-trimmed fur coat

The stoat or ermine, Mustela erminea, is a small predatory mammal of the family Mustelidae. It is also known as a Shorttail (or Short-tailed) Weasel and less frequently as the ermelin. Sometimes "ermine" refers to the animal only when it has white fur in the winter, and in this case "stoat" only refers to it when it has brown fur.


Natural history

The stoat or ermine can be found almost everywhere throughout the northern temperate, subarctic and Arctic regions, of Europe, Asia, and North America. In an unsuccessful attempt to control the rabbit population, it was introduced into New Zealand. The animals are largely nocturnal or crepuscular but will sometimes come out during the day.

Physical description

The stoat is a member of the family Mustelidae, one of the families with the most species in the order Carnivora. The Mustelidae also includes other weasels, mink, otters, ferret, badgers, polecats, the wolverine, martens, the tayra, the fisher and in some taxonomical classifications skunks.

The stoat moves in a sinuous manner when pursuing its prey. It is extremely quick over the ground considering its small size, and is also a strong swimmer that is able to colonize offshore islands. The stoat is built long and slender, making it one of the few species able to follow burrowing animals into their own homes. It partly compensates for this shape by having short legs, small ears, a fast metabolism and, in winter, thick fur. Stoats may grow up to 30 cm long, with males much larger than the females. In most areas it coexists with the weasel (Mustela nivalis, also known as the Least Weasel), the smallest member of order Carnivora. Where the weasel is absent the stoat is smaller (~70 g).

The stoat's coat is a rich red-brown with tan or off-white belly; the tail has a conspicuous black tip. In winter, the coat is thicker, and in warmer areas it remains brown. However, in regions that experience an inch or more of snow for at least forty days of the year (such as in Armenia),[2] the color changes to white, although the black tip to the tail remains. This white fur is known as "ermine", a term originating either from the Latin phrase "Armenius mūs" ("Armenian mouse")[3] or from a word common to the Germanic and Baltic languages,[4] hence the scientific name. At this stage, where the animal is known as a "stoat", it may be referred to as ermine, or as being "in ermine". The winter ermine has been used in art as a symbol of purity or virginity. The white fur was highly prized, and used in the robes of the Lord Chief Justice of England. The furs would be sewn together, the tail-tips making a pattern of black dots on a white ground. A version of this pattern is used in heraldry as ermine tincture. Both the animal and the heraldic tincture are symbols of Brittany.

In all seasons the stoat has a black tip to its tail. The black tip probably serves as a decoy to predators, which would include almost any carnivore large enough to eat a stoat (e.g. wolves, foxes, wolverines, and some birds of prey). This kind of coat is very similar to the coat of the long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata), a related animal of about the same size which also moults into white in the northern part of its range, and it is easy to confuse these kinds of weasels. The alternative North American name for the stoat, the "Short-tailed weasel" arose because its tail length distinguishes it from the long-tailed weasel. In general it is found farther north. Both species can be distinguished from the weasel because the weasel lacks a black tip on its tail.

Geographical range

The stoat is native to the area between the 40th parallel (north) and the beginning of the Arctic Circle, which encompasses most of northern Eurasia and North America.

Stoats have been introduced to New Zealand and Australia to control a rabbit overpopulation but found the indigenous wildlife easier to catch, thus leaving the rabbit problem unsolved. They were also brought to Terschelling Island to control water voles (Arvicola terrestris). Ermines can swim up to 1.5 kilometres (0.93 mi) across seawater and have already reached several New Zealand offshore islands unaided. Programmes are currently underway to eradicate stoats from many islands in the Fiordland region of New Zealand by the Department of Conservation.


The stoat is a carnivore. It eats insects, small mammals up to the size of a rabbit, birds and their eggs and young. It also eats small reptiles and fish. It is a very skillful tree climber and can descend a trunk headfirst, like a squirrel. The stoat is capable of killing animals much larger than itself. When it is able to obtain more meat than it can eat it will engage in "surplus killing" and often stores the extra food for later. When this is the case, it will often kill by breaking the prey's neck without marking the body, presumably so its cache does not spoil easily.

It is widely believed that stoats can "transfix" rabbits by exhibiting a tumbling routine akin to a dance, rendering the rabbit hypnotised such that it fails to notice the stoat approach within striking distance.[citation needed] However, this is almost certainly a myth; video footage of stoats hunting rabbits instead show the stoat chasing the rabbit until it is exhausted before overpowering it.[5]

Like other mustelids it typically dispatches its prey by biting into the base of the skull to get at the centres of the brain responsible for such important biological functions as breathing. Sometimes it will also make preliminary bites to other areas of the body. In most areas in which the stoat and the least weasel co-exist, the weasel generally takes smaller prey and the stoat slightly larger prey. The larger male stoat generally takes larger prey than the female. Commonly, the stoat itself falls prey to animals such as the wolf, fox, coyote, domestic cat or badger.


Young Mustela erminea

The stoat is territorial and intolerant of others in its range, especially others of the same sex. Within its range, it typically uses several dens, often taken from prey species. It usually travels alone, except when it is mating or is a mother with older offspring. It breeds once a year, producing several young kits (or kittens) per litter, and its mating system is promiscuous. Copulation occurs during the mating season with multiple partners and is often forced by the male, who does not help raise the offspring. Sometimes it occurs when the female is so young that she has not even left the den. In spite of being such a small animal, the stoat's gestation is among the longest reported for mammals (11 months) because of the adaptation of delayed implantation, or embryonic diapause, in which a fertilized egg is not implanted in the uterus until months later. The animal's "real" gestation is much shorter. This is presumably an adaptation to the highly seasonal environment in which the stoat lives.

Senses and behavior

Communication (and also location of prey) occurs largely by scent, since the stoat has a sensitive olfactory system. As a result, much of this communication is missed by human observers. However, stoats are believed to identify females in estrus by scent, and also the sex, health and age of prey. Some kinds of rodents such as voles have counter-adapted by being able to shut down reproduction (which makes females slower and easier to catch) if they smell the odor of mustelids. The stoat's visual resolution is lower than that of humans and color vision is poor although night vision is superior. Like most other non-primate mammals they have dichromatic colour vision (they can distinguish long from short wavelengths of light, but cannot make distinctions of hue within those bands). Tactile information is conferred by the vibrissae, or whiskers. When alarmed, a stoat can release a powerful musky smell from glands near its anus.


Stuffed stoat in Bristol City Museum, Bristol, England. The stoat is distinguished from the Least weasel by its larger size and black tip to the tail.
  • Mustela erminea
    • Yellow-necked ermine Mustela erminea ? Range: Northern Shaanxi, China
    • Mustela erminea alascensis
    • Mustela erminea algiricus
    • Mustela erminea anguinae
    • Mustela erminea angustidens
    • Mustela erminea arctica
    • Mustela erminea audax
    • Mustela erminea bangsi
    • Mustela erminea celenda
    • Mustela erminea fallenda
    • Mustela erminea ferghanae
    • Mustela erminea gulosa
    • Ermine haidarum Mustela erminea haidarum Range: Queen Charlotte Islands, Canada
    • Mustela erminea herminea
    • Mustela erminea hibernica (Thomas and Barrett-Hamilton) Range: Ireland, Isle of Man
    • Mustela erminea imperii
    • Mustela erminea initis
    • Mustela erminea invicta
    • Mustela erminea kadiacensis
    • Mustela erminea kanei
    • Mustela erminea labiata
    • Mustela erminea leptus
    • Mustela erminea lymani
    • Mustela erminea microtis
    • Mustela erminea mortigena
    • Ermine weasel Mustela erminea muricus
    • Hondo stoat Mustela erminea nippon Range: Central and northern Honshū, Japan[6][7]
    • Olympic ermine Mustela erminea olympica Range: Olympic Peninsula, Washington
    • Ezo Stoat Mustela erminea orientalis Range: Hokkaidō, Japan; Japanese: ezo-itachi "Ezo weasel", okojo "stoat/weasel", shiro-ten "white marten"
    • Mustela erminea polaris
    • Mustela erminea pusilla
    • Mustela erminea richardsonii
    • Mustela erminea rixosa
    • Mustela erminea salva
    • Mustela erminea seclusa
    • Mustela erminea semplei
    • Mustela erminea streatori
    • Mustela erminea vulgaris
    • Mustela erminea whiteheadi

Ermine and the nobility

Elizabeth I of England, ‘the Virgin Queen’ painted with an ermine on her arm. In this painting the ermine has, unnaturally, black spots over its entire body.

The skins of ermine are prized by the fur trade, especially in winter coat, and used to trim coats and stoles. The fur from the winter coat is referred to as ermine. There is also a design, also called ermine, which is inspired by the winter coat of the stoat but which is painted onto other furs, such as rabbit.[8] In Europe these furs are a symbol of royalty; the ceremonial robes of members of the UK House of Lords are trimmed with ermine.[8] The ermine is also considered a symbol of purity in Europe. In the Renaissance era, legend had it that an ermine would die before allowing its pure white coat to be besmirched. When it was being chased by hunters, it would supposedly turn around and give itself up to the hunters rather than risk soiling itself. Cecilia Gallerani is depicted holding an ermine in her portrait, "Lady with an Ermine". Henry Peacham's Emblem 75, which depicts an ermine being pursued by a hunter and two hounds, is entitled "Cui candor morte redemptus" or "Purity bought with his own death." Peacham goes on to preach that men and women should follow the example of the ermine and keep their minds and consciences as pure as the legendary ermine keeps its fur.[9] In some Nordic countries the ermine is invoked as a symbol of curiosity and timely action. In some areas of Japan, because of its appearance and somewhat elusive nature it is still considered a symbol of good luck.


See also


  1. ^ Reid, F. & Helgen, K. (2008). Mustela erminea. 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. ^ Christopher J. Walker, "Armenia: Survival of a Nation," London, 1990.
  3. ^ ermine - Definitions from
  4. ^ Indo-European etymology : List with all references.
  5. ^
  6. ^ Hondo Stoat. Japan's #1 Animal Blog, June 6, 2007. Accessed July 8, 2009.
  7. ^ Hondo Stoat. Rare Animals Of Japan. Accessed July 8, 2009.
  8. ^ a b "A house of traditions". January 19, 1999. 
  9. ^ The Minerva Britanna Project

Further reading

  • Buckley, D.J., Sleeman, D.P. and Murphy, J. 2007. Feral ferrets Mustela putorius furo L. in Ireland. Ir. Nat. L. 28:356–360.
  • King, Carolyn. The Natural History of Weasels and Stoats. London: A & C Black, 1987. ISBN 0-7470-1800-6.
  • Molinia F.; La Falci S.; Myers V.; McLane D. (2007). Non-invasive monitoring of stoat reproductive hormones. Science for Conservation 276. p 24. Department of Conservation, New Zealand. [1]
  • O'Connor C.; Turner J.; Scobie S.; Duckworth J.D. (2006). Stoat reproductive biology. Science for Conservation 268. p 24. [2]

External links

Simple English

[[File:|thumb|Baby stoats in Suffolk, England.]]

A stoat is a small mammal of the family Mustelidae. Males are bigger than females. Stoats are also called ermines. They can grow to be as long as 30 centimeters. They eat other small animals and bird eggs, and can kill animals bigger than themselves. They can also store food for later. They kill by biting the neck of their prey at the place where the skull attaches to the rest of the body, cutting the brain stem.

Stoats are long and thin with short legs, small ears, and thick warm fur. Their fur is brown, but changes to white in the winter. The tail has a black tip all year round. Stoats have a good sense of smell, and they talk and hunt using smell. They do not see color as well as humans, but they can see better at night. Stoats are not nocturnal, and are most active during dawn and dusk. Like skunks, stoats can spray a bad smelling fluid when they are scared. They are also good at climbing trees.

Stoats live in temperate, subarctic northern areas. They live in parts of Europe, Asia, and North America. They were also brought to New Zealand by people. In New Zealand they are considered bad because they kill too many native animals.

Stoats live alone and are territorial. They mate once a year and have several babies, which are called kits. The kits may not develop for 8-9 months after the female becomes pregnant. When weather conditions are good and there is plenty of food, the kits begin to grow and are born within a month. The males do not help raise the babies.

Look up Mustelidae in Wikispecies, a directory of species

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