Weasels are Built for the Hunt

 

At birth, the least weasel is as small and light as a paper clip, and the tiny ribs that press visibly against its silvery pink skin give it a segmented look, like that of an insect. A newborn kit is exceptionally underdeveloped, with sealed eyes and ears that won’t open for five or six weeks, an age when puppies and kittens are ready to be weaned.

A mother weasel, it seems, has no choice but to deliver her young half-baked. As a member of the mustelid clan — a noble but often misunderstood family of carnivorous mammals that includes ferrets, badgers, minks and wolverines — she holds to a slender, elongated body plan, the better to pursue prey through tight spaces that most carnivores can’t penetrate. Bulging baby bumps would jeopardize that sylphish hunting physique.

The solution? Give birth to the equivalent of fetuses and then finish gestating them externally on mother’s milk.

“If you want access to small environments, you can’t have a big belly,” said William J. Zielinski, a mustelid researcher with the United States Forest Service in Arcata, Calif. “You don’t see fat weasels.”

For Dr. Zielinski and other mustelid-minded scientists, weasels exemplify evolutionary genius and compromise in equal measure, the piecing together of exaggerated and often contradictory traits to yield a lineage of fierce, fleet, quick-witted carnivores that can compete for food against larger celebrity predators like the big cats, wolves and bears.

Researchers admit that wild mustelids can be maddening to study. Most species are secretive loners, shrug off standard radio collars with ease, and run close to the ground “like small bolts of brown lightning,” as one team noted. Now you see them, no, you didn’t. Read more...