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long-tailed weasel

long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata) is the most common carnivore in North America. Though these weasels inhabit a variety of habitats, from upland brush and woods to semi-open forest areas, in Idaho they are most often found in rocky, mountainous regions.

long-tailed weasel

long-tailed weasel

Long-tail weasels have a long slender body, similar to other weasels. On average, males are larger than females. These weasels have long, bushy tails that are about 50% of their total body length. Body length varies between 330 and 420 mm in males and 280 to 350 mm in females, tail length is from 132 to 294 mm in males, and 112 to 245 mm in females. Long-tailed weasels have a small, narrow head with long whiskers. They also have short legs. The fur is composed of short, soft underfur covered by shiny guard hair.

They are cinnamon brown in color with white under parts that have a yellow tinge. Twice a year these weasels shed their fur, once in the spring and again in the fall. This process is controlled by photoperiod. The coat of animals in northern populations is white in the winter and brown in the summer, while those in southern populations are brown year round.

Long-tailed weasels live in many different environments such as the woods, thickets and places with agricultural fencing. They are most comfortable in places with plenty of water and a high rodent population. Their nests are usually found in rock piles, junk heaps, abandoned buildings, and old burrows dug by mice, ground squirrels, moles, or chipmunks.

The long-tailed weasel kills by leaping or pouncing on an animal, severing major blood vessels in the region of the throat or the spinal column at the base of the skull with a series of quick bites. This species may also kill more prey than it can consume at one time, usually storing the surplus in or near the nest for later consumption. The myth that a weasel is a wanton killer derives both from this practice, and from the habit of eating only small portions of some prey, for example, the brain. The long-tailed weasel requires about 20-30 percent of its weight in food each 24-hour period.

long-tailed weasel

long-tailed weasel

Life Cycle: Mating for long-tailed weasels occurs in the mid-summer months. After copulation, implantation is delayed and the egg does not begin to develop until March, making the total gestation time around 280 days. Birth occurs from late April to early May, and the average size of the litter is six. At birth young weasels weigh about 3 grams.

They are pink with wrinkled skin, and they have white fur. At fourteen days, the white hair begins to thicken, and size differentiation makes it easy to tell males from females. At 36 days young weasels are weaned and can eat food brought back to the nest by the mother. They learn how to kill prey from the mother and by 56 days old they are able to kill prey on their own. Females mate in their first summer, but males wait until the following spring .

At birth, young weasels weigh about 3 grams. They are born helpless, with eyes closed, and with pink, wrinkled skin and white fur. At fourteen days their white fur begins to thicken, and size differentiation makes it easy to tell males from females. At 36 days old young weasels eyes open and they begin to be weaned and to eat foods brought back to the nest by their mother. They learn how to kill prey from the mother, and by 56 days they are able to kill prey on their own. Soon after they become independent.

long-tailed weasel

long-tailed weasel

Many long-tailed weasels die before reaching one year old. However, once they have reached adulthood they may live for several years. The lifespan of long-tailed weasels in the wild is not well known.

Predators: Avian predators include the barred and great-horned owls, and the northern goshawk. Coyotes and both red and gray foxes are documented mammalian predators. Few, if any, predators prey consistently on the long-tailed weasel because of its speed of movement, aggressiveness, and scent glands.

Social Behavior: Social system – This aspect of the life history of the long-tailed weasel is not well known. Adults are mainly solitary except during the breeding season when pairs form, at least temporarily. Adults occupy home ranges which overlap and vary in size with the availability of prey. Home ranges vary from 12-160 ha (30-400 acres), and males have larger ranges than females. Little is known about the densities of long-tailed weasel populations, but information from a few studies in different parts of the range gives estimates of one weasel per 2.5-256 ha (6.25-640 acre).

long-tailed weasels

long-tailed weasels

Communication – Scent and vocalizations play important but undetermined roles in regulating social encounters and defining the social organization of long-tailed weasels. Adults screech, hiss, purr, and also produce a repetitive “took-took-took” sound. Adults, when threatened or startled, often discharge the contents of their large anal glands, the products of which yield an odor that is nauseating to humans. These scent glands probably serve in marking and defining home ranges, as they do in the ermine.

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