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Home  >  Cool Critters  >  Featured Critters  >  Small Mammals
Cool Critter Factoids
Latin Name: Mustela erminea
Habitat: Inland Alaska and the northern United States,
Canada, Greenland and northern Europe, and Asia
Classification: Mammal, carnivore

Though they may look like cute pets, ermines, or short-tailed weasels, are some of the fiercest little predators in Alaska. Of course they are not dangerous to humans. In fact, you'd be lucky to even see an ermine in the wild. They are swift, silent creatures that can hunt and burrow in the forest and tundra unnoticed. Ermines are mostly nocturnal, which means they spend most of their time moving and hunting at night.

Chew on This

Ermines are crafty killers. Their ability to move so quietly, along with their sleek, flexible bodies, allows them to move easily into the dens and burrows of their prey. When they run, ermines can look as if they are bouncing. They arch their backs and tuck their back feet, then stretch and scamper easily over land. They usually eat voles, mice, shrews, and other small rodents, but will often feast on birds, insects, and eggs. If hungry enough, ermines aren't afraid to attack larger prey like hares and larger birds. Although the ermine might nip and bite anywhere on the body of its prey, it attacks with one specific target in mind. To kill rodents and hares, ermines pounce and sink their teeth into the back of the prey's neck. If an ermine hits its target, it can cripple an animal's breathing by crushing the connection between the prey's brain and body.

Think about it:
Can you think of other animals that look long and slinky when they run? Do you know anybody with a pet ferret?

Camouflage Coats

When you first see it, an ermine might seem like it wouldn't survive in cold Alaskan weather. They have small heads with short, round ears and long whiskers that are extremely sensitive to touch. The ermine's eyesight is not particularly good, although it sees much better at night. They are small animals with short legs and thin bodies that usually don't grow much longer than a foot. Unlike other arctic animals, ermines don't store large amounts of fat. Their hearts beat too quickly and they usually burn the necessary calories they get from food by the end of the day. But ermines have soft warm fur that provides them cover and warmth in all seasons. They do not hibernate, but will hunt all year long. Their fur is usually reddish brown in the spring and summer months. They have tan-colored, almost white fur on their bellies, and long tails with furry, black tips. In the winter, the ermine's coat will turn completely white, except for the tip of the tail. Ermines can blend into their snowy winter homes and stealthily hunt and kill their prey.

Think about it:
What would you wear if you were trying to blend into the snowy landscape?

Between Rocks and Hard Places
Ermines make their homes, called dens, in the cracks of rocks, or roots and holes of trees. Their sharp claws make them great diggers and climbers. They can run forward and backward, up and down the side of a tree trunk. Ermines sometimes have several dens in different places in their territory, but are usually solitary animals. They hunt and live alone, and usually only communicate with other ermines during mating season. Ermines sense prey, predators, and each other with their noses. Similar to other members of their family like skunks and weasels, they have glands in their rears that release distinct odors. A male ermine can smell if he has wandered too far into another ermine's territory, or if there is a female ermine close by.

Think about it: How is an ermine like a skunk?

One Against the World

The only time ermines spend time with each other is during mating season and in the first years of their life. They mate during the spring and summer, and female ermines can have as many as a dozen young in one litter. The mother teaches her young to hunt, before allowing them to leave and fend for themselves. Ermines are full-grown within one year.

Think about it: After raising twelve babies, maybe the mother is ready for some time alone!

Can I take your dry cleaning, your Majesty?
In European history, ermine fur was a prized material for royal clothing. Kings and queens used the fur for the collars and linings of coats. And in old Alaska, skin-sewers made beautiful fancy parkas decorated with the distinctive look of ermine. These days, sewers still use it in parkas and slippers, but ermines are such small creatures, it takes many animals to have enough material. The ermine is not endangered in Alaska and locals welcome ermines because of their unique ability to kill mice and other small rodents. They frequently roam uninhabited cabins, killing and eating unwanted pests.

Think about it: Compare pictures of the king's robe and the parka. Which would you rather wear in Alaska?

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Image provided by Anchorage Daily News.

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Image provided by Anchorage Daily News.

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Image provided by BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc.

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Image provided by BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc.

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