Interesting ferret facts

October 10, 2010 | In: Animal facts for kids

CLASS: Mammalia
ORDER: Carnivora
FAMILY: Mustelidae
GENUS & SPECIES: Mustela putorius putorius and M. p. furo Mustela nigripes
COMMON NAMES: European Ferret, European Polecat, Polecat, Domestic Ferret (compared to Black-footed Ferret of America)

CLASSIFICATION: Ferrets, like all Mustelids, are omnivores of the Carnivore order. Mustela means “weasel” in Latin and most Mustelids are very weasel-like in appearance. Putor is Latin for “stench or rotten-ness” and accurately describes the body odor of most Mustelids. The wild European Ferret is the supspecies M. p. putorius and the “domesticated” form is M. p. furo. The subspecies name comes from the Latin through the Greek and means “to rage or be frantic,” a descriptive that aptly describes their oft-times behavior. The species name of the Black-footed Ferret means, accurately enough, “black-foot.”

The polecat is naturally found through the forested zones of Europe except through Scandinavia. It was driven to extinction in England, probably by the Squires’ game keepers. Domestic ferrets have become feral in New Zealand and in small pockets in various countries where it is kept as a pet, one of the reasons they are illegal in the state of California.

Height: 2-4 in. at shoulder
Length: Body length: 35-50 cm (12 – 20 inches) Tail length: 12-19 cm (4 – 8 inches)
Weight: 0.7 – 1.5 kg. (2.2 k to the pound)

Long and narrow, with a very flexible spine, a relatively long neck, short limbs and a narrow skull, with quite an impressive set of teeth.

Wild ferret hair is dark on the outer shaft and light at the base, with a light undercoat. The general color gets lighter on the head and especially toward the muzzle, but there is a dark mask across the eyes. The subspecies that is called the domestic ferret has many shades of dilution, even to being white. The white forms are not albino, for the eyes remain black. True albinos lack all melanin, in their eyes as well as hair, so their eyes are pink.

The Black-footed Ferret is an all-over cream to tawny with some dark tipping on the back and a white face. The legs, from elbows and knees down, plus the tail tip and mask, are black. The bare rhinal pad (nose skin) is black.

rodents, rabbits, birds, insects, lizards and frogs. Black-footed Ferrets depended almost completely on Prairie Dogs.

Weasels and polecats are generally active day or night and are little bothered by weather because they hunt primarily under ground or under the snow.

All mustelids have anal glands with powerful musk. A little musk is passed with the fecal mass, which is carefully placed as a sign post where passing individuals are likely to find it. Almost all mustelids will spray in defense, although the skunk is the champion.

Ferrets are voracious predators and their kills are often larger than they are. A single family of polecats can consume thousands of voles, mice, rats and rabbits in a single year. They are not necessarily effective in keeping the numbers of these prey animals down because the prey animals breed faster and their numbers increase more rapidly. The polecat population gradually increases and they are very effective in the suppression of any prey species over carrying capacity. This cyclic fluctuation of predator and prey populations is typical. It is seen in the lynx / snowshoe hare and in the snowy owl / lemming populations also.

Because the Black-footed Ferret was a true specialist and so dependent upon the Prairie Dog, wherever man controlled the Prairie Dog population, the ferret died out.

Ferrets, like all weasels are very flexible, able to enter the burrows of their prey and to turn around in the tunnels. Ferrets can fold in half and swivel below the ribs so that the front is completely opposite the hind.

The size difference between males and females is based on two aspects of their live history. First, males need to defend a territory, so added size is important. Second, resource partitioning, the male can take larger prey (which is often more dangerous) and seldom takes small prey that would be ideal for the female because of the energy expenditure. It takes just as much energy to hunt a small thing and taking larger prey means fewer hunts. Plus, the female can make her way down the burrows of the prey, needs less food for herself so more is available for the pups. She can also raise her pups in dens that are inaccessible to larger predators including the male ferrets.

For most of the year, most mustelids live separate lives and are hostile when they meet. Breeding season results in a temporary truce. Ferrets have induced ovulation that is stimulated by vigorous copulation. The penis of all mustelids is stiffened by an os penis, or penis bone. It aids in the very prolonged copulation, which may take over an hour. There may be delayed implantation, the delay governed by the availability of food and day length.

Gestation is about 40 days after implantation and an average of 5 pups is born in a very altricial condition. The eyes open in 3-4 weeks and they begin to take meat at about a month old. The female lactates for about three months and then the family slowly disperses. They mature within their first year. In the wild, longevity is often only 1 to 2 years although captivity has shown them able to live much longer.

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