Steppe polecat

The steppe polecat (Mustela eversmanii), also known as the white or masked polecat, is a species of mustelid native to Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. It is listed as Least Concern by the IUCN because of its wide distribution, occurrence in a number of protected areas, and tolerance to some degree of habitat modification.[1] It is generally of a very light yellowish colour, with dark limbs and a dark mask across the face.[2] Compared to its relative, the European polecat, the steppe polecat is larger in size and has a more powerfully built skull.[3]

The steppe polecat is a nomadic animal which typically only settles in one area until its prey, mainly ground squirrels, are extirpated.[4] It mates from March to May, and generally gives birth to litters of three to six kits, which attain their full growth at the age of two years.[5] It hunts for larger prey than the European polecat, including pikas and marmots.[6]

Steppe polecat
Wild steppe polecat
Wild steppe polecat at the Stepnoi Sanctuary
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Mustelidae
Genus: Mustela
M. eversmanii
Binomial name
Mustela eversmanii
(Lesson, 1827)
Steppe Polecat area
Steppe polecat range


Skull and jaw of the extinct Mustela eversmanii beringianae

The earliest true polecat was Mustela stromeri, which appeared during the late Villafranchian. It was considerably smaller than the present form, thus indicating polecats evolved at a relatively late period. The steppe polecat's closest relatives are the European polecat and black-footed ferret, with which it is thought to have shared Mustela stromeri as a common ancestor.[7] The steppe polecat likely diverged from the European polecat 1.5 million years ago based on IRBP, though cytochrome b transversions indicate a younger date of 430,000 years.[8] As a species, the steppe polecat represents a more specialised form than the European polecat in the direction of carnivory, being more adapted to preying on larger rodent species; its skull has a stronger dentition, its projections are more strongly developed and its muscles of mastication are more powerful. The steppe polecat's growth rate is also much slower than the European polecat's, as its skull undergoes further development at an age when the European polecat attains full growth.[3] The species may have once been present in Pleistocene central Alaska.[9]


As of 2005,[10] seven subspecies are recognised. Not included is an extinct subspecies, M. e. beringiae, which was native to Beringia, and was much larger than M. e. michnoi, the largest extant subspecies.[11]


MSU V2P1b - Mustela eversmanni skull
Skull, as illustrated by N. N. Kondakov.
Mustela putorius (Turkestan polecat) fur skins

The species is very close to the European polecat in general appearance, proportions and habits, though its body seems somewhat more elongated, due to its shorter guard hairs. The tail is short, constituting a third of its body length.[16] The skull is heavier and more massive than that of the European polecat, having more widely spaced zygomatic arches and more strongly developed projections, particularly the sagittal crest.[17] It greatly resembles the black-footed ferret of North America, with the only noticeable differences between them being the steppe polecat's much longer and softer fur, shorter ears, and shorter postmolar extension of the palate.[18] It has four pairs of teats and well-developed anal glands, which can produce a sharp-smelling liquid which is sprayed in self-defence.[2] Males measure 320–562 mm in body length, while females measure 290–520 mm. Tail length of males is 80–183 mm and 290–520 mm for females. Males in Siberia may weigh up to 2,050 grams, while females weigh 1,350 grams. One giant polecat from Semirechye had a body length of about 775 mm.[19] Overall, specimens exhibiting gigantism are more common than in the European polecat, and occur primarily in western Siberia, where they likely hybridise with Siberian weasels.[20]

The winter fur is soft and tall, with short, dense underfur and long, sparse guard hairs. The fur is generally shorter and not as thick as that of the European polecat. The guard hairs are especially well developed on the lower back, though still sparser than those of the European polecat. Contrary to the former, the steppe polecat's guard hairs never completely cover the underfur. The base colour of the winter fur is very light yellowish or whitish-yellowish. The tips of the guard hairs are blackish-brown or brown, forming a frosting effect over the yellow underfur. This frosting is stronger in the middle and lower back, where the guard hairs are denser and longer. The guard hairs on the upper back, the flanks, between the shoulders and along the upper neck are extremely short, thus being lighter in colour than the posterior region. The head is piebald, with the eye region and the upper side of the nose being covered by a brownish mask. Behind the mask, a white band crosses the head from cheek to cheek. A small brownish area is usually located in front of each ear. The ears are completely white, while the throat is yellowish-white or almost white. Sometimes, the head is entirely white. The lower surface of the neck is dark blackish-brown or brown, while the chest and forelegs are black or blackish-brown. The abdomen is light, yellowish-straw in colour. The groin is the same colour of the forelimbs. The base of the tail is light in colour, while the tip is dark brown. The summer coat is shorter and coarser than the winter fur, and is not as dense and close-fitting, with a more strongly developed ochreous or reddish tone. The head is, overall, darker than in winter, with greater contrast between the dark and white tones.[2]


Territorial and sheltering behaviours

Steppe polecat skull & teeth
Skull and dentition, as illustrated in Pocock's The Fauna of British India, including Ceylon and Burma - Mammalia Vol 2

The steppe polecat does not hold sharply defined home ranges. During warm seasons, especially in areas rich in ground squirrels, aged polecats hold relatively stable territories until they have extirpated their prey. Younger polecats are less sedentary, and will sleep overnight in the burrows of ground squirrels they have killed. Females nursing their litters are the most settled, but will begin roaming once the kits are old enough to accompany them. Generally, the steppe polecat only occupies one home range for a few days or up to a few months. In winter, the steppe polecat is more active, and will move 12–18 km a day. During heavy snowfall, the steppe polecat migrates to more favourable areas, such as along the slopes of steppe ravines, near settlements and winter encampments.[4]

The species does not usually dig its own burrow, instead using those of marmots, ground squirrels, hamsters, moles, voles, jerboas and others, after slightly widening them. Its burrow is often poorly constructed, as it does not inhabit one long enough to warrant restructuring. Nesting burrows are not lined, and have many outlets, ranging from three to 20. Alongside the nest chamber is a food store. Independently dug burrows are typically shallow and simple in construction.[4]

Reproduction and development

In captivity, mating was observed in early March till the end of the month. In the Moscow Zoo, seven cases were observed of polecats mating from 9 April till 9 June. Symptoms of estrus were noted on 12–13 March, and continued to develop for two to three weeks. After mating, these symptoms disappeared within three to four weeks. The mating season in western Siberia occurs in March, while in Transbaikalia it occurs to the end of May. Copulation lasts from 20 minutes to three hours. Estrus may last longer or be repeated should a female fail to produce a litter or if the litter dies prematurely. Typically, the steppe polecat mates once a year and produces one litter. The gestation period lasts from 36–43 days. Placentation occurs two weeks after mating, with the blastocyst stage lasting seven to eight days. Litters usually consist of three to six kits, though litters of 18 are known.[5]

Kits are born blind and naked, with pale rose skin and a membrane over the ears. At birth, they measure 6.5-7.0 cm in length and weigh 4.5 grams, though polecats born in the Moscow Zoo weighed 10 grams. Usually, the weight of newborn kits depends on litter size. A thin, white underfur appears on the body after three days, and the body length doubles, while the weight increases six-fold at up to 33 grams. Milk teeth erupt around the same time, and the feet begin to darken. On the 20th day, the kits darken in colour and weigh 70-72 grams. The eyes open after 28–34 days, and the kits become more active, to the point of attempting to tear apart prey whilst still relying on the mother's milk. At the age of one month, kits measure 190 mm in length and weigh 138 grams. By the age of 45 days, they are able to hunt young ground squirrels, and begin to target adults at the age of 60 days. The kits remain in the family burrow for 2.0-2.5 months. The kits begin to disperse from July or later, and attain sexual maturity at the age of 10 months. They reach adulthood at the age of two years.[5]


Unlike the European polecat, which feeds mostly on mouse-like rodents, the steppe polecat preys on larger, steppe-dwelling mammals such as ground squirrels, hamsters, pikas and young or injured adult marmots. Ground squirrels are its most frequent prey throughout the year; in warm periods, they are hunted on the surface, while in autumn they are excavated from their burrows. Male polecats often have to widen squirrel burrows to enter them, while young or female polecats can usually enter them easily. In areas where ground squirrels are absent, the steppe polecat feeds primarily on hamsters and pikas, or water voles on the banks of water bodies. Along the shores of rivers and lakes, fish, chickens and carrion may be prey. Birds occasionally killed by the steppe polecat include grey partridges and willow grouse. Amphibians and reptiles are rarely eaten.[6]

Distribution and habitat

The steppe polecat occurs from Central and Eastern Europe in the west through southern Russia, northern Georgia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan to Mongolia and northern and western China.[1] In 2014, it has been recorded at an elevation of 5,050 m (16,570 ft) in Upper Mustang, Annapurna Conservation Area, Nepal.[21]

Diseases and parasites

The steppe polecat is weakly susceptible to sylvatic plague, tularemia and canine distemper. Weakened individuals are susceptible to pasteurellosis. Helminth infections, as well as tick infestations are widespread in the species. Up to 11 flea species are known to infest the steppe polecat, some of which are picked up from its prey.[22]

Relationships with humans

The steppe polecat is of great economic value to nations of the former Soviet Union. It kills large numbers of rodents harmful to agriculture and which spread disease; a single steppe polecat can destroy at least 200 ground squirrels a year or 1,500 mouse-like rodents in winter alone. It is also very important to the fur trade of the former Soviet Union. It holds first place among harvested furbearers in Kazakhstan and other regions. However, steppe polecat numbers dropped noticeably during 1926-1929 and 1956-1959. This decline was attributed to changes in steppe landscapes and a decrease in the species' natural prey in connection with the application of chemical methods in controlling rodent populations, the plowing of Virgin Lands and changes in agrochemical methods. The steppe polecat is fairly easy to harvest. It is primarily caught with jaw traps located near inhabited burrows.[23]



  1. ^ a b c Maran, T.; Skumatov, D.; Abramov A. V. & Kranz, A. (2016). "Mustela eversmanii". The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN. 2016: e.T29679A45203762. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-1.RLTS.T29679A45203762.en. Retrieved 30 October 2018.
  2. ^ a b c Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1136–1137
  3. ^ a b Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1143
  4. ^ a b c Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1169–1170
  5. ^ a b c Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1172–1173
  6. ^ a b Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1166–1167
  7. ^ Kurtén 1968, pp. 98–100
  8. ^ Sato, J., T. Hosada, W. Mieczyslaw, K. Tsuchiya, Y. Yamamoto, H. Suzuki. 2003. Phylogenetic relationships and divergence times among mustelids (Mammalia: Carnivora) based on nucleotide sequences of the nuclear interphotoreceptor retinoid binding protein and mitochondrial cytochrome b genes Archived 2011-10-03 at the Wayback Machine. Zoologial Science, 20: 243-264.
  9. ^ ANDERSON, E. 1973. Ferrets from the pleistocene of central Alaska. J. Mammal. 54: 778-779
  10. ^ Wozencraft, W.C. (2005). "Order Carnivora". In Wilson, D.E.; Reeder, D.M. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0. OCLC 62265494.
  11. ^ Kurtén, Björn (1980). "Pleistocene mammals of North America". Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-03733-3.
  12. ^ a b Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1160–1161
  13. ^ Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1164–1165
  14. ^ Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1163–1164
  15. ^ a b Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1162–1163
  16. ^ Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1135
  17. ^ Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1138–1139
  18. ^ Merriam, Clinton Hart (1896). "Synopsis of the weasels of North America". Washington : Govt. Print. Off
  19. ^ Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1142–1143
  20. ^ Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1141
  21. ^ Chetri, M., Odden, M., McCarthy, T. and Wegge, P. (2014). First record of Steppe Polecat Mustela eversmanii in Nepal. Small Carnivore Conservation 51: 79–81.
  22. ^ Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1173–1174
  23. ^ Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1175–1176


External links

Asiatic linsang

The Asiatic linsang (Prionodon) is a genus comprising two species native to Southeast Asia: the banded linsang (Prionodon linsang) and the spotted linsang (Prionodon pardicolor). Prionodon is considered a sister taxon of the Felidae.

Black-footed ferret

The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes), also known as the American polecat or prairie dog hunter, is a species of mustelid native to central North America. It is listed as endangered by the IUCN, because of its very small and restricted populations. First discovered by Audubon and Bachman in 1851, the species declined throughout the 20th century, primarily as a result of decreases in prairie dog populations and sylvatic plague. It was declared extinct in 1979 until Lucille Hogg's dog brought a dead black-footed ferret to her door in Meeteetse, Wyoming in 1981. That remnant population of a few dozen ferrets lasted there until the animals were considered extinct in the wild in 1987. However, a captive breeding program launched by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service resulted in its reintroduction into eight western states, Canada and Mexico from 1991 to 2009. There are now over 1,000 mature, wild-born individuals in the wild across 18 populations, with five self-sustaining populations in South Dakota (two), Arizona, Wyoming and Saskatchewan. It was first listed as "Endangered" in 1982, then listed as "Extinct in the Wild" in 1996 before being downgraded back to "Endangered" in 2008.The black-footed ferret is roughly the size of a mink, and differs from the European polecat by the greater contrast between its dark limbs and pale body and the shorter length of its black tail-tip. In contrast, differences between the black-footed ferret and the steppe polecat of Asia are slight, to the point where the two species were once thought to be conspecific. The only noticeable differences between the black-footed ferret and the steppe polecat are the former's much shorter and coarser fur, larger ears, and longer postmolar extension of the palate.It is largely nocturnal and solitary, except when breeding or raising litters. Up to 91% of its diet is composed of prairie dogs.

Deliblatska Peščara

Deliblato Sands (Serbian: Делиблатска пешчара / Deliblatska peščara) is a large sand area covering around 300 km² of ground in Vojvodina province, Serbia. It is located in southern Banat, situated between the river Danube and the southwestern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains. The sands are named after the village of Deliblato, in the municipality of Kovin. Its main masses are elliptical shaped hills with steppe grassland plains and steppe forests.

The Deliblato Sands is the largest sandy terrain in Europe, once part of a vast prehistoric desert, having originated from the withdrawal of the Pannonian Sea. They are home to many endemic species of plants and animals which are rare or endangered in Europe and globally. Due to its forest and surroundings, it was declared a Special Nature Reserve. On a national level, it represents a natural asset of special importance falling under protection category I.

European polecat

The European polecat (Mustela putorius) – also known as the common ferret, black or forest polecat, or fitch (as well as some other names) – is a species of mustelid native to western Eurasia and north Morocco. It is of a generally dark brown colour, with a pale underbelly and a dark mask across the face. Occasionally, colour mutations, including albinos and erythrists, occur. Compared to minks and other weasels – fellow members of the genus Mustela – the polecat has a shorter, more compact body; a more powerfully built skull and dentition; is less agile; and it is well known for having the characteristic ability to secrete a particularly foul-smelling liquid to mark its territory.

It is much less territorial than other mustelids, with animals of the same sex frequently sharing home ranges. Like other mustelids, the European polecat is polygamous, though pregnancy occurs directly after mating, with no induced ovulation. It usually gives birth in early summer to litters consisting of five to 10 kits, which become independent at the age of two to three months. The European polecat feeds on small rodents, birds, amphibians and reptiles. It occasionally cripples its prey by piercing its brain with its teeth and stores it, still living, in its burrow for future consumption.The European polecat originated in Western Europe during the Middle Pleistocene, with its closest living relatives being the steppe polecat, the black-footed ferret and the European mink. With the two former species, it can produce fertile offspring, though hybrids between it and the latter species tend to be sterile, and are distinguished from their parent species by their larger size and more valuable pelts.The European polecat is the sole ancestor of the ferret, which was domesticated more than 2000 years ago for the purpose of hunting vermin. The species has otherwise been historically viewed negatively by humans. In the British Isles especially, the polecat was persecuted by gamekeepers, and became synonymous with promiscuity in early English literature. During modern times, the polecat is still scantly represented in popular culture when compared to other rare British mammals, and misunderstandings of its behaviour still persist in some rural areas. As of 2008, it is classed by the IUCN as Least Concern due to its wide range and large numbers.


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Polecat is a common name for mammals in the order Carnivora and subfamilies Galictinae and Mustelinae. Polecats do not form a single taxonomic rank (i.e., clade); the name is applied to several species with broad similarities (including having a dark mask-like marking across the face) to European polecats, the only species native to the British Isles.

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A weasel is a mammal of the genus Mustela of the family Mustelidae. The genus Mustela includes the least weasels, polecats, stoats, ferrets and minks. Members of this genus are small, active predators, with long and slender bodies and short legs. The family Mustelidae (which also includes badgers, otters, and wolverines) is often referred to as the "weasel family". In the UK, the term "weasel" usually refers to the smallest species, the least weasel (M. nivalis).Weasels vary in length from 173 to 217 mm (6.8 to 8.5 in), females being smaller than the males, and usually have red or brown upper coats and white bellies; some populations of some species moult to a wholly white coat in winter. They have long, slender bodies, which enable them to follow their prey into burrows. Their tails may be from 34 to 52 mm (1.3 to 2.0 in) long.Weasels feed on small mammals and have from time to time been considered vermin because some species took poultry from farms or rabbits from commercial warrens. They do, on the other hand, eat large numbers of rodents. They can be found all across the world except for Antarctica, Australia, and neighbouring islands.

Subspecies Trinomial authority Description Range Synonyms
Petropavlov steppe polecat
M. e. eversmanii

(Nominate subspecies)

Lesson, 1827 A moderately sized subspecies with dense, soft winter fur, the general tone of the fur is pale, straw-whitish, with white underfur. The guard hairs on the hindquarters are lighter than in other subspecies.[12] Trans-Volzhsky, western Siberia east to Irkutsk Oblast and south to the Cis-Altai steppes, Pri-Balkhash, the plains portion of Semirechye, and north, western and eastern Kazakhstan, outside the former Soviet Union, it may occur in parts of China contiguous with eastern Kazakhstan, outside the USSR, its occurrence has not been established; it may possibly be encountered in that part of China contiguous with eastern Kazakhstan aureus (Pocock, 1936)

heptapotamicus (Stroganov, 1960)
nobilis (Stroganov, 1958)
pallidus (Stroganov, 1958)

Chinese steppe polecat
M. e. admirata
Pocock, 1936 Hebei, Shaanxi and Ordos
Amur steppe polecat
M. e. amurensis
Ognev, 1930 This is a moderately sized subspecies with short, dense and soft fur. The general colour of the back is bright reddish-ochreous, almost without dark tones[13] Left bank of middle River Amur, eastern former Manchuria and possibly farther south
European steppe polecat
M. e. hungarica
Éhik, 1928 A small subspecies with sparse and coarse fur, its fur colour is the darkest among steppe polecats, being relatively dark-brownish with yellowish underfur and dark, tawny frosting.[12] Westernmost European Russia, northwards to northern limit of Russia, eastwards, probably to Volga and northern Caucasus, outside the former Soviet Union, its range encompasses former Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, northeastern former Yugoslavia, northern Bulgaria, Romania and apparently in a small section of Poland at its boundary with Lvov moravica (Kostron, 1948)

occidentalis (Brauner, 1929)
satunini (Migulin, 1928)

Tibetan steppe polecat
M. e. larvatus
Hodgson, 1849 A poorly understood form, likely of large size[14] Tibet and Kashmir tibetanus (Horsfield, 1851)
Baikal steppe polecat
M. e. michnoi
Kastschenko, 1910 A very large subspecies with very long, coarse winter fur and long, shaggy guard hairs, it is of a whitish colour, with black guard hairs and sometimes a light reddish fur.[15] Cis-Baikalia on the west to the range of the form M. e. eversmanii in the east, Trans-Baikalia, Tuva, the montaine parts of Altai, former Manchuria, Mongolia and possibly the northern parts of Inner Mongolia and some eastern parts of Dzungaria dauricus (Stroganov, 1958)

lineiventer (Hollister, 1913)
sibiricus (Kastschenko, 1912)
triarata (Hollister, 1913)
tuvinicus (Stroganov, 1958)

Turkestan steppe polecat
M. e. talassicus
Ognev, 1928 A small subspecies with long, dense, but coarse winter fur, the general tone of its fur is very pale whitish, lacking any rusty tone. The underfur is slightly yellowish, the guard hairs are black and the facial mask is barely noticeable.[15] Between the Caspian Sea and Lake Balkhash, the western borders of Tien Shan, southern Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenia
Extant Carnivora species

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