Mustela putoriusEuropean polecat

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Geographic Range

Polecats range throughout Europe. Polecats are rare in the British Isles, due to human pressure, but seem to be increasing in numbers in recent years.

Polecats have been introduced to New Zealand.

Habitat

Polecats prefer to live along bodies of fresh water, in wetlands, on the edge of forests, or in grasslands with islands of scrub trees.

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • lakes and ponds
  • rivers and streams

Physical Description

Polecats display extreme sexual dimorphism, wherein males can weigh up to twice as much as females and be a third or more longer. They have a coat of creamy-colored underfur with black guardhairs. In winter, this coat is thick, smooth and glossy. In summer, after biannual shedding, the coat is thin and faded and loses the luster of the winter coat. Polecats have a raccoon-like dark mask around their eyes, surrounded by a white face accented with white-tipped ears. Like all mustelids, polecats have a pair of anal glands that emit a strong-smelling secretion. When polecats are excited or threatened they release some of the contents of these glands.

Polecats are lean, slender weasel-like creatures with short legs and a "bounding" gait that is faster and more efficient than it appears. Their skulls are slightly "boxy" and more canine in appearance that those of the other weasels; their faces more closely resemble minks than weasels. Like these other mustelids, polecats display a "key-lock" formation of the jaw, where the articulation between the dentary and the rest of the skull is nearly sealed off into a permanent hinge and is very difficult to separate even after death. This gives the mustelids their amazing tenacity of grip during fights, hunting, and play. Polecats and ferrets can be lifted and suspended by whatever they are gripping with their teeth.

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    205 to 1710 g
    7.22 to 60.26 oz

Reproduction

Males in nearby territories may compete for access to reproductive females. Copulation appears violent, males grab females by the back of the neck and drag her back and forth until she is completely limp.

Polecats come into estrous during late winter. Usually one litter is produced a year though, if that one is lost, it is possible for the female to give birth again that season. The 3-7 young are born after a 42 day gestation and are weaned after one month. Although they are not completely mature until they are around six months old. Maternal protection of the young ends at around three months when they reach adult size.

  • Breeding interval
    Births occur once yearly, typically.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs during the winter.
  • Average number of offspring
    3-7
  • Average number of offspring
    7.5
    AnAge
  • Average gestation period
    42 days
  • Average gestation period
    42 days
    AnAge
  • Average time to independence
    3 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    6 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    312 days
    AnAge
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    6 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    Sex: male
    322 days
    AnAge

Females care for their young until they reach their adult size, at about 3 months old.

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

Behavior

Most mustelids are solitary creatures, and polecats are no exception. Unless a female has a litter, or is in season, polecats will strongly defend their territory. They are primarily nocturnal although females with young have been known to forage during the day.

Communication and Perception

Their sense of vision is not very acute; they rely mainly on their sense of smell to track and kill prey.

Food Habits

Mustela putorius is carnivorous and generally preys on rodents and rabbits. It is a testament to the polecat's ferocity that it can and will take down a rabbit that is much larger than itself. Should food become scarce, polecats also eat insects and fruit, though they are much less able to handle the digestion of these foods than either canids or ursids.

  • Primary Diet
  • carnivore
    • eats terrestrial vertebrates
  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • amphibians
  • reptiles
  • eggs
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • Plant Foods
  • fruit

Ecosystem Roles

Polecats are important predators of small mammals in the ecosystems in which they live.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

European polecats help to control rodent populations. Their domesticated descendant, the household ferret (Mustela putorius furo), is a popular pet and has been used in hunting for millenia. They have also been hunted for their fur, which is considered valuable, though not as valuable as that of other mustelids such as mink or ermine.

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

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

As with other mammalian carnivores, polecats can be rabies vectors. They can also carry distemper and the common cold, causing problems for dogs and humans, respectively. They can occasionally damage poultry farms, as they will kill more than they can eat and drag the rest off for later.

Conservation Status

Polecats are common throughout Europe and are neither threatened or endangered.

Contributors

Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Barbara Lundrigan (author), Michigan State University, Molly Conley (author), Michigan State University.

Glossary

Australian

Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

World Map

Palearctic

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

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

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.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

causes or carries domestic animal disease

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

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

endothermic

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.

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

introduced

referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.

iteroparous

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).

marsh

marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.

motile

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.

nocturnal

active during the night

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.

polygynandrous

the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.

riparian

Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

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

solitary

lives alone

tactile

uses touch to communicate

taiga

Coniferous or boreal forest, located in a band across northern North America, Europe, and Asia. This terrestrial biome also occurs at high elevations. Long, cold winters and short, wet summers. Few species of trees are present; these are primarily conifers that grow in dense stands with little undergrowth. Some deciduous trees also may be present.

temperate

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).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

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.

savanna

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.

visual

uses sight to communicate

viviparous

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

References

Grzimek, B. 1990. Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals. New York; NY: McGraw Hill.

Nowak, R. 1999. Walker's Guide to Mammals of the World. Baltimore; MD: Johns Hopkins Press.