Weasels, minks and sables are all very similar and have similar characteristics and behavior. Minks and sables live primarily in northern regions of North America, Asia and Europe and produce highly-prized fur used in coats and stoles. Weasels are found in more southern areas and have shorter fur. Nowadays furs are out of fashion in North America and Europe but are still popular in Russia and have become popular in China.

Ermine—also called stoat, short-tailed weasel, or Bonaparte weasel—is a northern weasel species that turn white in the winter. Widely distributed across northern North America and Eurasia, ermines are most abundant in thickets, woodlands, and semi-timbered areas. These slender, agile, voracious mammals measure 13 to 29 centimeters (5 to 12 inches) in head and body length. The term “ermine” also describes the animal’s pelt was used historically in royal robes and crowns in Europe. [Source: Encyclopedia Britannica]

Weasels, ferrets, minks, sables, martens and polecats are closely related. They belong to the musteleid (or weasel) family, which also includes otters, badgers, wolverines, and skunks. There are much fewer sables and minks than fox, which are all prized in the fur industry. These days minks are raised on farms. In the old days they were caught by trappers. Because they don’t breed well in captivity sables are still largely caught by trappers and hunters.


Weasels belong to the Order Carnivora and the Family Mustelidae. Although they are small in size they are fearless predators that will eat just about any small animal they can catch. They are mostly nocturnal but are sometimes seen in the day. [Source: Richard Conniff, Smithsonian]

There are ten weasel species. The most well known ones are the short-tailed weasel (also known as ermine or stoat), the least weasel (indigenous to Europe and Asia and introduced to North America and New Zealand), the long-tailed weasel (found mostly in North America). Stoats are similar to weasels. are common the British Isles.

Weasels rarely live more than a year. They are small, long and slender. They range in length from 13 centimeters to 30 centimeters (5 inches to 12 inches) and usually weigh less than half a kilograms (12 ounces). They have short legs, broad flat heads, long necks and powerful jaw muscles and long, sharp canine teeth. Males are generally 25 to 35 centimeters in length not including the tail and weigh up half a kilogram. Females are usually less than half this size.

Like their relative the skunk, weasels posses an anal gland that can spray a nasty smelling liquid that is not as bad as that of skunk but still pretty bad. The spray is used primally as a last measure of defense.

Weasels are feed on by hawks, owls, eagles, lynx and wolves. But these animals engage weasels at their own peril. Once, a weasel was captured by a hawk and taken into the air. A witness observed the hawk take off and then plummet to the ground. I was found the bird had died from a fatal weasel bite to the chest. Another time, an eagle was found with a bleached weasel skull with its teeth permanently clenched into the bird’s neck. Weasels are also preyed on by parasitic worms that eat their brain. Some scientist believe that these parasites many explain their "dance for death" behavior.

Book: “Natural History of Weasels and Stoats” by Carolyn King, Weasel Expert at Oxford University.

Weasel Behavior and the Dance of Death

Weasel expert Carolyn King told Smithsonian, Weasels are "bold and confident out of all proportion to their size, and the do not seem to know the rules." Roger Powell, a zoologist at North Carolina State, told Smithsonian, "They're very charismatic creatures. Or maybe the word is 'enigmatic.' When you look at a weasel, what strikes you is how intelligent they are, really looking at you carefully. They're very curious, investigative creatures."

Describing a weasel in action, Richard Conniff wrote in Smithsonian, "She stood on her hind legs, brown and sleek, showing her creamy white underbelly. Her long snakelike head pivoting from side to side, frantically scanning the grass to see if she'd stirred up any movement. She leaned forward, as if to dart at something, then leaped right and left, and disappeared again, popping up a moment later, ten yards away."

During their "dance of death," weasels spin around, do somersaults and generally act so strange that other animals sometimes come close to investigate. In the middle of the dance, the weasel suddenly stops and lunges towards a watching animal and kills it. There have also been reports of weasels mesmerizing rabbits with their musky scents and biting the rabbits face in such a way the poor animal dies of fright.

Weasel Hunting and Feeding

Weasels are one of the few animals that routinely kill animals much larger than themselves. Their primary prey is rodents such as rabbits, rats, voles and mice. They also eat eggs and insects. Weasels do well in agricultural areas eating mice and large insects such as grasshoppers.

Weasels are efficient and often ruthless killers. Once a weasel killed 17 rats in 20 minutes. Others have been observed bringing down rabbits three times their size. They usually kill their prey with crushing bites to the head and neck.

Hunting weasels usually climb in the burrow of their prey head first and lunge at their victims, dispatching them with a jaw-locking bite to the face or the neck. Weasel's long and slender body allows them to easily enter the tunnels of rodents. This gives them an advantage over other animals such as hawks, lynx and foxes that also feed mainly on rodents. Weasels are also good tree climbers. They sometimes climb trees to get at eggs.

Weasel's live hard and die early. Their small size and high energy levels are ideal for hunting burrowing rodents but over the aeons they have made a number of evolutionary tradeoffs to reach that goal: namely a short lifespan. King told Smithsonian, "All mammals large and small average roughly the same number of heartbeats and breath in their lives—and these processes are much faster in small animals." The heartbeat of a weasel at rest is 400 to 500 times a minute.

To keep its body going a weasel must eat five to 10 meals and consume 35 percent of it body weight everyday. Weasel's can't afford to store much fat either because then they wouldn't be able to squeeze into the burrows that are so vital to hunting. Their lack of fat and slender bodies also means that weasels can’t store heat very well and also must keep eating to generate enough body heat to themselves warm.

Weasels have to eat a lot of rodents to keep going. When mice, vole and rabbit populations crash as the often do in winter weasels often don’t have enough to eat and die if starvation. The same happens if a disease hits a rodent population they rely on for food.

Weasel Mating Behavior and Young

Because weasel's have such a short lifespan they need reproduce quickly so their the species can survive. A female can give birth and raise her young in as little as three months. When rodents are plentiful she may give birth to a second litter and her offspring may give birth before fall. This mean that a single female can produce 30 offspring between spring and winter, when the population crashes.

Young females become sexually mature very quickly and mate soon after they do and are either pregnant and raising young for the remainder of their life. In one study of 500 female weasels, only two had not been impregnated. Some weasels practice delayed implantation. This means they get pregnant in the spring and delay implant as much as a year to when conditions are better for survival.

Females usually give birth to one to eight young. The number of young born and the number that survive often depends on how much there is to eat. Weasels have no permanent homes. They often occupy the burrows of their most recent victims. These hijacked burrows are also used for raising young. Usually the young are kept in them while the female hunts for food for herself and her offspring. Sometimes a male helps by catching and offering food to the young. But this male is not the father, who disappeared not long after having sex with the mother. The male who offers food reportedly does so in return for sexual favors from the mother.

Weasels and Humans

Weasels are so quick and sneaky that few people have seen them in wild. They have a reputation for raiding houses and barns. The sometimes do this but they are just as likely to kill rats, the usual henhouse thieves.

Weasels are not held in the same high regard as bunnies or even foxes. When are a person is referred to as a "thieving weasel," "gutless weasel," or "shifty weasel" the intent is usually less than flattering. In Kenneth Grahame' “Wind and the Willows”, weasels are "bloodthirsty villains" who terrorize the "poor faithful creatures" of Toad Hall.

Scientists used traps baited with white mice to capture weasels. Some weasels are so fond of the mice that when they are released from a trap they get caught a short while in another trap a few hundred yards a way. After they are taken they are tranquilized, weighed, and examined. Fleas and scat are collected. Radio collars unusually stay very well on a weasel's neck.

When a weasel bites a finger it is difficult to get to let go. King explained one strategy to get a weasel off: "You hold up another finger and wave it in front of the animal's face. Then, when it let's go of one finger to grab the other, you pull both finger back. Quickly."


Martens are a member of the weasel family. Various species of marten live in the northern latitudes of Europe, Russia, Asia and North America. Marten species include pine martens, black marten (also known as fisher or pekan martens) and stone marten. The black marten is the second largest marten. It is from two to three feet long and has a foot-long bushy black-tipped tail.

Martens have long, slender bodies and short heads. Their outer fur us long and glossy. Some martens live in trees and leap from branch or branch like squirrels. Some spend most of their time on the ground.


Minks are among the most well known fur-bearing animals. They produce a luxurious, warm fur and are found primarily in the Canada, Russia, Alaska and Scandinavia. European minks are slightly smaller than the American minks and have a white upper lip. The Siberian mink has tawny brown fur.

Minks are small, long-bodied and slender. The are generally around about two feet in length, including a bushy eight-inch tail, and usually weigh less than 1 kilogram. They have short legs, small ears, broad flat heads, long necks and powerful jaw muscles. Minks live five to six years.

Minks live along the banks and streams and ponds and in forests and plains. They are skillful tree climbers and swimmers. When cornered minks fight very fiercely. Like skunk and weasels, minks posses a gland that can release a nasty smell. Mink females give birth and raise their young in nests prepared in hollow logs, or holes among rocks. Females produce about one liter a year with five or six young although there may be from three to ten.

Minks hunt prey on land and in water. Their primary prey is rodents such as rabbits, rats, musk rats, voles and mice. They also eat birds, frogs, fish, grubs, eggs and insects. Minks are viscous animals that get pleasure from killing animals and kill even when not hungry. They are one of the few animals that routinely kill animals much larger than themselves.

"The mink is an extremely efficient vole-killer," Nick Mott, of the Otter and Water Vole Project in Britain told the Washington Post. "The strategies that work for the water vole against other predators don't stop the mink. A female mink can squirm down those burrows and reach the vole and her cubs. And your mink, now, she won't stop feeding until she's wiped out every vole within her range."

Mink fur is thick and soft and has a beautiful sheen. Minks have long, stiff, shiny guard hairs. The minks of northern regions have the darkest and most lustrous fur. They do not change color in winter. Most minks used to make fur garments are raised in fur farms. Careful breeding has produced black, black and white, platinum and silver-blue mink. On average a full length mink coat requires 60 to 70 skins to make. Blending is used in mink furs.


The Siberian sable marten is the source of expensive and sumptuous sable fur. They are found almost exclusively in Siberia. Other kinds of sables or martens include the American marten, Chinese sable, American sable, baum marten, Japanese marten and stone marten. Sables are members of the mustelid (or weasel) family.

Sables don't breed well in captivity although some are raised on farms and ranches but of their farm-raised sable is regarded as low quality. They are generally hunted or trapped. and their pelts often sell for more that $1000 a piece. The most valuable fabric in the Renaissance was Russian sable. Worth more than Persian silk, Indian calico, French-worked damask, it was sold mostly from warehouses in Arkhangelsk, northern Russia. Czar crowns were trimmed with sable.

Sable Fur

The Siberian sable marten is the source of expensive sable fur. An average skin of genuine Russian sable is worth several hundred dollars. A hat can cost over a thousand dollars. Coats cost several tens of thousands of dollars. Quality coat made from wild sable sells for $100,000 or more. The outer hair of the sable is used for the best quality artist brushes. Each hair is even tapered do the brush comes to a fine point when dipped in water or paint.

Patrick E. Tyler wrote in the New York Times: “The sable, resembling a cross between a cat and a weasel, is a cousin of both the weasel and the mink, but its fur surpasses all others in silky density and luminous hues of beige, brown, gold, silver and black. Basically a carnivore of northern climes, the sable feeds on pine nuts, mice and even squirrels and prefers to hunt at night. [Source: Patrick E. Tyler, New York Times, December 27, 2000]

On sable from the Barguzin region of Siberia, Helen Yarmack, a former mathematics teacher who has become one of Russia's leading fur designers, told the New York Times: ''This sable has such a special energy and mystery in addition to being so light and warm and sexy that it is no wonder that a century ago there was a law that only the czar and his family could wear this sable.''

Sable Fur Production

Patrick E. Tyler wrote in the New York Times: “After a decade of chaos and collapse in the Russian fur industry, boom and bust in the retail market and fierce opposition from animal rights groups internationally, the one great constant about the fur trade has been Russia's monopoly on the most sought-after pelts in the world, the kind Mr. Karnilov was holding by the nape of the neck: those from the Barguzin region of Siberia. [Source: Patrick E. Tyler, New York Times, December 27, 2000 ^]

“In the calamitous post-Soviet economy, Russian hunters have become the mainstay of world sable production, reversing the balance from Soviet times when sable farming produced a majority of pelts. Now hunters, who head out into the taiga each fall, outproduce Russia's crumbling fur ranches by more than four to one, Russian fur industry experts say. ^

“Hunting cooperatives have been cut adrift from state financing, and now hunters sell their pelts to public and private trading companies that collect the national fur harvest each year and transport it to St. Petersburg for auction. A professional hunter today gets almost nothing from the state, except the exclusive right to hunt on huge swaths of pristine wilderness. ^

“Just north of Moscow, the largest and most successful fur ranch in Russia, the Pushkinsky state farm, has just completed the slaughter of 15,000 sable by lethal injection, representing about half the 30,000 farm-grown sable slaughtered in Russia this year and sold at international auction to fashion houses in the United States, Europe and Japan. ''This animal is still considered a national asset and a national monopoly,'' said Pushkinsky's general director, Yevgeny N. Kazakov. But he and other Russian officials assert that European fur companies have conspired to break Russia's lock on the species by secretly buying as many as 100 animals from bankrupt former Soviet fur farms in the Baltic states. It's a plot reminiscent of the Soviet-era novel ''Gorky Park'' by Martin Cruz Smith. ''It isn't decent what they have tried to do,'' said Mr. Kazakov, referring to the European raiders, ''but as far as I know, it hasn't worked out because 100 or so animals'' is not sufficient to establish a sable population with genetic diversity. ^

Sable Hunters

Reporting from Arzoma Klyuch a few hundred kilometers from Lake Baikal in Russia, Patrick E. Tyler wrote in the New York Times , “Wearing a hat made from pelts of hunting dogs that had disappointed him, Valery T. Karnilov, a strapping former cattleman, had been stalking the foothills of the Sayan Mountains for only two weeks this winter when his huskies treed the first trophy of the season, a growling Barguzin sable with creamy golden fur and black tail. [Source: Patrick E. Tyler, New York Times, December 27, 2000 ^]

“The sable monopoly has helped to sustain an extensive hunting culture in Russia. Today there are at least 10,000 licensed professional hunters, who in Soviet times worked in the same socialized collectives as farmers and factory workers. As many as 200,000 amateurs — and not a few poachers — have swelled the ranks. In the season, from October to mid-February, they will shoot or trap up to 250,000 sables, along with millions of squirrel, mink and a host of other fur-bearing species. ^

“And though Russia's hunters are suffering the economic dislocations that have befallen almost every post-Soviet institution, tens of thousands still respond to the call of the wild. ''For 20 years I worked as a bus driver, but as I sat there every day behind the wheel of that bus, all I did was dream about coming out here to the taiga,'' said Anatoly M. Kurkin, 42, who is spending his second season hunting with Mr. Karnilov, 37, on a boreal landscape of mountains and valleys near this bend in the river called Arzoma Klyuch, or spring. ^

''We come out here for our souls,'' said Aleksandr I. Shevchenko, the chief hunter who supervises Mr. Karnilov, Mr. Kurkin and four other men who lease the rights to hunt on a half-million acres of taiga. ''I used to live in the city and I had a chance to stay in Irkutsk,'' the provincial capital, ''and become a manager,'' he said, ''but I just rejected that life because my soul calls me back to the taiga.'' ^

“With unemployment as high as 50 percent in many Siberian villages, hunting can seem an attractive profession. And there is always the occasional well-paying foreigner to be guided into the taiga to hunt bear or reindeer. Mr.Shevchenko, 44, has led Norwegians and Germans into the Russian wilderness, where he cuts an unusual figure wearing a tank helmet lined with dog fur over a tunic and knee-high felt boots. He drives a homemade all-terrain vehicle that can reach the remote hunting camps he supervises. In 20 years of walking the taiga with a rifle, he has seen almost everything, he says, and though he kills animals for a living, he also shows a reverence for nature. ^

Sable Hunting

Patrick E. Tyler wrote in the New York Times, Under a canopy of cedars and fir trees in the middle of the Siberian taiga, Mr. Karnilov took careful aim with his small-caliber carbine. As the dogs bayed to keep the sable frozen in fear with dagger teeth bared against the human predator, the hunter felled the animal with a single shot to the head. The best marksmen aim for the eyes to avoid damaging the fur. ''I knew he was mine as soon as I saw him,'' Mr. Karnilov said as he showed off his prize to visitors who reached this one-hut camp in mid-November” on “the Oka River about 230 miles west of Lake Baikal. By that time he had already bagged a second sable. [Source: Patrick E. Tyler, New York Times, December 27, 2000 ^]

“Here on the banks of the Oka River, the stars seem to hang lower in the rotunda of night sky that stands on a circumference of deep blue ridge lines. And the river runs through it all, a slash of jade green rippling between collars of ice that soon will shutter the stream until May. This is where it all begins for the most expensive wrap on the planet. When a woman bathes herself in a $100,000 sable coat from a salon in Milan, Paris or New York, she is not wearing ''ranch'' fur from sables raised in cages, because by far the most exquisite specimens of sable are still found only in the Russian wild. ^

“In the rose-colored morning light, the hunters moved stiffly against the chill, 20 degrees below zero. A layer of frost lay over the dogs, who curled back-to-belly for warmth. Mr. Karnilov quickly built a fire to heat the dogs' breakfast of squirrel meat and noodles, as the staccato code of a woodpecker echoed through the forest. When the snow becomes too deep for the dogs, the hunters set traps. At night, the hunters gather in a 12-by-12 log cabin, and while the dogs sleep outside so they will not be spoiled for the cold dawn, the woodsmen make tea spiced with pine needles and cedar moss, prepare barley stew on the wood-burning stove and tell stories of the sable tracks they have seen, of bears they have bested or fled from, of the wolf pack around the next bend — and how hard it is to find a good dog in this world.

“At the end of each season, the hunters take a census of sable, mink and other animals to help regulate the quota the Ministry of Agriculture will set for hunting licenses the next year.” ''The population of sable is estimated at 1.1 million animals and if we take 25 percent a year from nature, that leaves 75 percent as breeding stock in the wild,'' said Mr. Chipurnoi of the fur association. But hunters report that greater pressure from amateurs and poachers is reducing the sable population in these areas. ^

''In the 1980's, they were going to build a dam and a hydroelectric station right upstream from here, but thank God perestroika came along and they abandoned those plans,'' the hunter Shevchenko he said. ''Then they found diamonds just downstream from here and they were bringing a drilling rig upriver eight years ago, but the barge sank and they abandoned those plans too,'' he continued, then added, ''I think that God is protecting this river.'' With that he made the sign of the cross and sipped his tea.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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