Mustela eversmaniisteppe polecat

Geographic Range

Steppe polecats are found throughout central and western Europe and throughout most of central Asia (southern Russia, northern Georgia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, and northern and western China; Wozencraft, 2005). (Wozencraft, 2005)


Steppe polecats inhabit a variety of moderately dry habitats, including steppes, semi-deserts, pastures, and cultivated fields. They tend to avoid forested habitats (Mitchell-Jones et al., 1999; Smith and Xie, 2008). They are commonly found in the plains throughout Russia, Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and eastern China (Mead et al., 1990). They have been found at elevations of 800 m in Europe and 2,600 m in central Asia. Steppe polecats shelter in burrows, hollow trees, dense vegetation, rock crevices, or abandoned buildings during the day, and some have been known to take shelter in the burrows of their prey (Nowak, 1999). (Mead, et al., 1990; Mitchell-Jones, et al., 1999; Nowak, 2005; Smith and Xie, 2008)

  • Range elevation
    2,600 (high) m

Physical Description

Steppe polecats have long slender bodies, similar to other species in the Mustela genus, and exhibit a variety of color patterns. Generally, the body is straw yellow or pale brown. They have dark dorsal pelage that becomes progressively lighter toward the ventral pelage. The thorax, limbs, inguinal region, and about a third of the tail are dark brown to black, and coloration on the muzzle resembles a mask. As a result, they are sometimes referred to as the "masked polecat" (Nowak, 1999). They weigh between 1350 and 2050 g and are between 290 and 562 mm in length. (Nowak, 1999)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    1,350 to 2,050 g
    to oz
  • Range length
    290 to 562 mm
    11.42 to 22.13 in


Steppe polecats are polygynous, with males having more than one mate during breeding season (Webster, 2010). (Webster, 2010)

Steppe polecats breed seasonally, between February and March. If a female loses her litter (predation, illness, etc.), she may attempt to produce another litter later in the year. Gestation last for 38 to 41 days, and parturition occurs during March and April. Average litter size is 8 to 10 pups, which weigh approximately 4 to 6 g at birth. Pups begin to open their eyes at 1 month old and are weaned and begin hunting with their mother at 1.5 months old. Young disperse at 3 months old and reach sexually maturity at approximately 9 months old (Nowak, 2005). (Nowak, 2005)

  • Breeding interval
    Steppe polecats breed once per year
  • Breeding season
    March to April
  • Range number of offspring
    8 to 10
  • Range gestation period
    38 to 41 days
  • Average weaning age
    1.5 months
  • Average time to independence
    3 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    9 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    9 months

Steppe polecats nurse for about 1 month after birth. After weaning, pups can open their eyes and begin hunting with their mother. By 3 months old, pups are independent and leave there mothers (Nowak, 2005). Little information exists on paternal investment in steppe polecats. (Nowak, 2005)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female


The lifespan of steppe polecats has not been documented. Ferrets (Mustela putorius), a close relative of steppe polecats, live from 4 to 5 years in the wild and 8 to 10 years in captivity (Nowak, 1999). (Nowak, 1999)


Steppe polecats live in breeding colonies, which consist of multiple mated pairs and their young and only occur during the breeding season. Unmated males associate primarily with other bachelors, and male-female interactions are limited to the breeding season (Despard Estes, 1991). Steppe polecats often live in the same burrow for many years, however, local migrations may occur in response to deep snow or lack of food. They are nocturnal, and although most individuals prefer staying close to home, they can travel up to 18 km to find food during the evening.They are exceptionally agile and greatly depend on their sense of hearing and smell. They can leap up to one meter at a time and appear to follow a random walk trajectory while searching for prey (Nowak, 2005). (Despard Estes, 1991; Nowak, 2005)

Home Range

Steppe polecats, especially females, tend to stay in the same burrow for many years. Males occasionally browse other burrows in search for estrous females. While hunting, individuals leave their burrows and may travel up to 18 kilometers in one night (Nowak, 2005). The average territory size of steppe polecats is unknown. (Nowak, 2005)

Communication and Perception

Steppe polecats use chemical cues to communicate with con- and heterospecifics. When threatened or excited, they secrete a foul odor from their anal gland, which they also use to mark territorial boundaries and colonies. Chemical cues are also used for identifying estrus females, territorial boundaries, and sensing danger. In addition to chemical cues, steppe polecats use visual and auditory cues. When threatened, their hair stands erect and they may stare, snap, bite, hiss, or scream to deter a potential threat. Steppe polecat males also use vocalizations to attract potential mates and to signal dominance. Finally, pups use a variety of vocalizations to communicate with mothers and siblings (Despard Estes, 1991). (Despard Estes, 1991)

Food Habits

Steppe polecats are nocturnal and do most of their hunting at night (Nowak, 2005). Although they feed on birds, reptiles, insects, and fruit, their primary prey are rodents, which constitutes nearly 80% of their diet (Wang et al., 2006; Wolsan, 1993). Occasionally they store prey carcasses in their burrow for later consumption (Nowak, 2005). (Nowak, 2005; Wang, et al., 2006; Wolsan, 1993)

  • Primary Diet
  • carnivore
    • eats terrestrial vertebrates
  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • reptiles
  • insects
  • Plant Foods
  • fruit


Humans hunt steppe polecats for food and fur and are their primary predator. They emit a foul odor when threatened, which is secreted from the anal scent glands (Van den Brink, 1977). (Gerard, 2008; Van den Brink, 1977)

Ecosystem Roles

Steppe polecats help control rodent populations, which can carry dangerous parasites or be important disease vectors (Nowak, 2005). They also host a number of different parasites, including Isospora eversmanni, Eimeria ictidea, Isospora pavlowskyi, and Yersinia pestis, the bacterium known to cause the plague. (Nowak, 2005)

Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • Isospora eversmanni
  • Eimeria ictidea
  • Isospora pavlowskyi
  • Yersinia pestis

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Steppe polecats play an important role in controlling rodent populations, which can be agricultural pests or vectors for disease. In addition, they are trapped for their meat and fur throughout eastern Europe and central Asia (Nowak, 2005). (Nowak, 2005)

  • Positive Impacts
  • food
  • body parts are source of valuable material
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Steppe polecats are a known reservoir or Yersinia pestis, the bacterium known to cause the plague (Duszynski, et al., 2000). Fortunately, interactions between steppe polecats and humans are very rare. (Duszynski, et al., 2000)

Conservation Status

According to the IUCN, steppe polecats are a species of "least concern". However, they are listed as vulnerable in the Red Data Book of Ukraine. The subspecies Mustela eversmanii amurensis is listed in the Red Data Book for Russia and China, due to over hunting and habitat loss, respectively (IUCN, 2010). They are protected under Appendix II of the Bern Convention (Mitchell-Jones et al., 1999). ("International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).", 2010)


Eric Dubbelde (author), University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Stefanie Stainton (editor), University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Christopher Yahnke (editor), University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, John Berini (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff.



living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map


uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat

causes or carries domestic animal disease

either directly causes, or indirectly transmits, a disease to a domestic animal


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


Referring to a burrowing life-style or behavior, specialized for digging or burrowing.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

keystone species

a species whose presence or absence strongly affects populations of other species in that area such that the extirpation of the keystone species in an area will result in the ultimate extirpation of many more species in that area (Example: sea otter).


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


active during the night


chemicals released into air or water that are detected by and responded to by other animals of the same species


having more than one female as a mate at one time

scent marks

communicates by producing scents from special gland(s) and placing them on a surface whether others can smell or taste them

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

stores or caches food

places a food item in a special place to be eaten later. Also called "hoarding"


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


uses sight to communicate


reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born


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