Weasels And Related Mammals

Types of animal science: Behavior, classification, reproduction Fields of study: Anatomy, classification

Weasel family members live throughout the world, in many different habitats. They include badgers, martens, mink, otters, skunks, weasels, and wolverines. Most are carnivores, and all are hunted for their fur.

Principal Terms carrion: dead, partly decomposed animal bodies ermine: valuable white fur made from weasel pelts taken in winter gestation: time period for carrying developing mammalian offspring in the uterus musk: bad-smelling liquids animals make to mark territory or for self-defense omnivorous: able to eat both plants and animals perineal: located between scrotum and anus in males or the equivalent region in females

About seventy species belong to the weasel family (Mustelidae). These furry mammals weigh from three ounces to one hundred pounds. Included are weasels, mink, martens, wolverines, otters, skunks, and badgers. Mustelids live worldwide, except for Antarctica, Australia, and the Sahara Desert. Their habitats range from the Arctic to tropical rain forests. Some live on the ground, others live in trees, and still others inhabit rivers or oceans.

Most weasel family members have long, slender bodies and all have short legs. Each mustelid paw has five toes, with sharp claws for grasping prey and burrowing. The smallest mustelids, least weasels, weigh three ounces. River otters, the largest mustelids, are four to six feet long (with tails) and weigh up to seventy pounds. Sea otters can weigh ninety to one hundred pounds. Beautiful, luxurious mustelid fur is sought for use in fur garments.

All mustelids have perineal glands which make unpleasant-smelling musks, causing their characteristic odors. Musks mark territory or are used for self-defense. The odor of mustelid musk is most offensive in skunks, which use it for self-defense.

Male and female mustelids often live alone, except when mating. Mating seasons vary with species and habitat. Pregnancy for mustelids ranges from one to nine months. Litters contain one to ten young, depending on species and food availability. Life spans of mustelids that reach old age are one to twenty-five years.


Weasels, like most mustelids, are carnivores. They eat other animals, carrion, and insects. All weasels have keen eyesight, keen smell, and are excellent hunters. They are bloodthirsty, often killing for fun and leaving prey carcasses uneaten. Humans hunt weasels in response to their bloodthirsty natures and for their beautiful, soft fur. This is especially true of weasels that live in cold climates and grow white winter coats that collectively provide ermine.

Weasels are known for their unpleasant odor, from musk made in perineal glands. The long-tailed weasel is the best-known North American species. It has a white belly, a brown back, and a black tail tip. Males and females are 1.5 and 1 foot long, respectively. The least weasel, also North American, is the smallest known carnivore, only six to eight inches long.

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