The sable (Martes zibellina) is a small carnivorous mammal, closely related to the martens. It inhabits forest environments primarily in Russia from the Ural Mountains throughout Siberia, in northern Mongolia and China and on Hokkaidō in Japan. Its range in the wild originally extended through European Russia to Poland and Scandinavia. It has historically been harvested for its highly valued fur, which remains a luxury good to this day. While hunting of wild animals is still common in Russia, most fur in the market is now commercially farmed.
The name sable
appears to be of Slavic
origin and to have entered most Western European via the early medieval fur trade. Thus the Russian sobol
and Polish soból
became the German Zobel
, Dutch Sabel
; the French zibelline Spanish cibelina, cebellina
, Finnish soopeli
and Mediaeval Latin zibellina
derive from the Italian
form. The English
and Medieval Latin word sabellum
comes from the Old French sable
The term has become a generic description for some black-furred animal breeds, such as sable cats or rabbits.
Males weigh 880-1800 grams and have body length between 380-560 mm, with relatively long tails between 90-120 mm. Males are somewhat larger than females (700-1560 grams, 350-510 mm). Winter pelage is longer and thicker than their summer coat. Coloration varies in color from tan to black. The fur is somewhat lighter ventrally and a patch of gray, white, or pale yellow fur on the throat is common. The finest, darkest fur is highly prized and referred to as "black diamond".
Behavior, habitat and ecology
Sables are diurnal predators, using their sense of smell and hearing to hunt for small prey. They have been observed to hide in their dens for days during periods such as snow storms, or when they are being hunted by humans. In the wild they are potentially vicious, although there are "domesticated" sables who have been described as playful, curious, and even "tame" (if taken from their mother at a young age). They are mostly terrestrial, hunting and constructing dens on the forest floor. They feed on chipmunks
, small birds
. When primary sources are scarce they eat berries
, vegetation, and pine nuts
. When weather conditions are extreme they will store their prey in their den. Despite their small size, their sharp teeth and fierce demeanor discourage most predators.
History of exploitation and status
Sable fur has been a highly valued item in the fur trade
since the early Middle Ages. Intensified hunting in Russia in the 19th and early 20th century caused a severe enough decline in numbers that a five year ban on hunting was instituted in 1935, followed by a winter-limited licensed hunt. These restrictions together with the development of sable farms have allowed the species to recolonize much of its former range and attain healthy numbers. The collapse of the Soviet Union
led to an increase of hunting and poaching in the 1990s, in part because wild caught Russian furs are considered the most luxurious and demand the highest prices on the international market. Currently, the species has no special conservation status according to the IUCN
, though the isolated Japanese subspecies M. zibellina brachyurus
is listed as "data-deficient".
Because of its great expense, sable fur is typically integrated into various clothes fashions: to decorate collars, sleeves, hems and hats (see, for example the shtreimel). The so-called Kolinsky sable-hair brushes used for watercolor or oil painting are not manufactured from sable hair, but from that of the siberian weasel.
- Martes zibellina on U. M. Animal Diversity Web