Interview with an ermine

Ermine. Photo by TessaLuna. Pixabay Licence.

Amelia: What a gorgeous winter day to walk along the river. The contrast between the white snow and the dark rocks is breathtaking. Wait, that pile of snow is moving. Now it’s jumping from rock to rock. I can’t believe it- it’s an ermine!

Ermine: Calm down lady, haven’t you ever seen an ermine before? We live literally everywhere in Canada.

A: Wow, I had no idea you were so common. Why haven’t I seen your before?

E: It may be because we’re nocturnal. Humans have notoriously poor night vision.

A: That’s correct. But if you’re nocturnal, what are you doing out during the day?

E: Oh, we can be active during the day too. I was just hanging out in my burrow when I got a whiff of a vole, so I came out to investigate.

A: Are voles your favorite food?

E: Definitely, right up there with mice.

A: Why the penchant for small furry mammals?

E: Well, you may have noticed I’m long and thin. I’m the perfect size to fit into the tunnels dug by those rodents. I track them down by smell into the places where they feel safest, and then BOOM! They never know what hits them.

A: That’s…slightly diabolic.

E: Hey, a predator’s got to eat. And I have particularly urgent needs due to my fast metabolism. I need to eat every day to survive. That’s why I’m constantly hunting.

A: That sounds like it could be stressful.

E: Nah, I’m a fierce and efficient predator. I’m also not above grabbing a snack from a carcass killed by a larger animal. And if those dratted foxes and owls grab too many of the mice, I can always go for rabbits, fish, or birds.

A: Sounds like you’re quite adaptable. Do you have any predators?

E: Lady, I’m less than a foot long. Of course I have predators. Hawks, coyotes, badgers, foxes, owls would love to snatch me up. I’m even a nice snack for larger members of the weasel family.

A: Really, other weasels will eat you? That sounds like family betrayal to me.

E: As they say, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. Our average lifespan is only two years, and most of us don’t make it to our first birthday. In fact, that’s why the tip of our tail is black- we hope that hawks and owls that see us scurrying across the snow will go for the black tail and not the rest of our white body, which is camouflaged against the snow.  

A: Does that work?

E: I’ve never tested it personally, but I’m not dying to try, if you know what I mean. Like most females, in the winter I spend most of my time in the snow tunnels built by mice and voles. The males are more likely to scamper about on top of the snow, where they are more visible to predators. I think that may be why their lifespan is usually shorter than ours.

A: Well, it seems smart to keep hidden when you have so many predators. You mentioned your den earlier, did you dig it yourself?

E: Do these look like digging paws to you? No, I stole it from a vole I killed. As a predator I have the pick of the real-estate market. I did make some modifications- like digging out a small pantry where I cache food for later in case I get hungry.

A: Do you live there alone? Do you have a mate living there with you?

E: That’s kind of a personal question, don’t you think? Ermines are lone wolves. We interact with males just to breed, and then we stay out of their way. But come springtime, I won’t be alone in my burrow. I anticipate I’ll be sharing it with five to six babies.

A: Wow, congratulations! Does that mean you’re pregnant now?

E: Kind of? Similar to our relative the mink, we have a secret called delayed implantation. This means we can hold an embryo in suspended animation until the spring, when the weather is nice enough and there are lots of prey around. At three months old I was sexually mature, so I started making this current batch of babies about six months ago. When the days get longer in March the embroys will implant and start developing.

A: I can see how that would come in handy. Once the babies are born, how long before they leave the den?

E: Thankfully for me, they grow very fast. When they are eight weeks old, they are nearly adult-sized and can hunt for themselves. We’ll hang out together until late summer, and then it’s every ermine for themselves. We are very territorial, and mark our territory with musk, or with droppings. Most of our communication with other ermines is through scent. We really don’t want to see each other if we can help it.

A: Understood. Why do you turn white in the winter, anyway? Is it a fashion statement?

E: It’s a survival statement! Being white means we disappear on a snowy background. This is great for both sneaking up on prey, and hiding from predators. But not all of us turn white in the winter, you know.

A: Really? Which ones don’t?

E: Well, we’re found in many climactic zones throughout Canada, the Northern U.S., Europe and Asia. In places that get less snow, we only turn partially white. Of course, it’s only the pure white ermines found in the most northernly areas that have to worry about getting caught for their fur. The things humans will do for a few centimetres of white fur boggles the mind.

A: Yes, I have to apologize for that. I know ermine fur was particularly popular among European royalty, for lining crowns and coronation robes. Why was that?

E: Our fur was a symbol of wealth and prestige. We’re rather hard to catch, so making an entire coat out of our fur was a lengthy and expensive endeavor. Some people also thought our white fur symbolized purity. One legend had it that we would do anything to keep from getting dirty, which is kind of hilarious considering we literally live in holes dug in the ground. It was said that if a hunter put dirt at the entrance of our burrow, we would refuse to escape into our burrow and get dirty. No idea where that silliness came from. Sure, I’ll clean the gore off my fur after a meal, but that’s just common sense to keep from attracting predators and to maintain my white camouflage. A blood-spattered ermine is just asking for trouble.

A: That’s a lovely image.

E: Well, it’s better than a coat made of ermine any day. Of course, being associated with royalty meant that eventually common rich folks wanted to wear our fur to show off how wealthy they were. Thankfully we were relatively safe here in Canada- the fur came primarily from ermines in Northern Eurasia. It’s still one of the most expensive furs on the market.

A: Did all that hunting for fur make ermines endangered?

E: Not at all! While we’re hunted and trapped in small parts of our range, there are still lots of us all over the world. We’re definitely not in danger of extinction. What impacts our populations most is food availability. If prey becomes scarce, then we will have fewer babies.

A: Speaking of food, you probably need to get back to hunting.

E: You’re right, my belly is starting to grumble- I can’t have that!


About Amelia

I am passionate about communicating great ideas, particularly science and health ideas.

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