Originally, the name "weasel" was applied to one species of the genus, the European form of the Least Weasel (Mustela nivalis). Early literary references to weasels, for example their common appearances in fables, refer to this species rather than to the genus as a whole, reflecting what is still the common usage in the United Kingdom. In technical discourse, however, as in American usage, the term "weasel" can refer to any member of the genus, or to the genus as a whole. Of the 16 extant species currently classified in the genus Mustela, ten have "weasel" in their common name. Among those that do not are the stoat or ermine, the two species of mink, and the polecats or ferrets.
Weasels vary in length from fifteen to thirty-five centimeters (six to fourteen inches), and usually have a light brown upper coat, white belly and black fur at the tip of the tail; in many species, populations living at high latitudes moult to a white coat with black fur at the tip of the tail in winter. They have long slender bodies, which enable them to follow their prey into burrows. Their tails are typically almost as long as the rest of their bodies. As is typical of small carnivores, weasels have a reputation for cleverness and guile. They also have tails that can be anywhere from 22-33 cm long and they use these to defend the food they get and to claim territory from other weasels. The average weasel weighs about 198 grams (7 ounces).
Weasels feed on small mammals, and in former times were considered vermin since some species took poultry from farms, or rabbits from commercial warrens. Certain species of weasel and ferrets have been reported to perform the mesmerizing weasel war dance, after fighting other creatures, or acquiring food from competing creatures. In folklore at least, this dance is particularly associated with the stoat.
Weasels are found all across the world except for Australia and neighbouring islands.
|Mustela africana||Desmarest, 1800||Tropical weasel||South America|
|Mustela altaica||Pallas, 1811||Mountain weasel|| Europe & Northern Asia|
|Mustela erminea||Linnaeus, 1758|| Stoat|
| Australia (non-native)|
Europe & Northern Asia
Southern Asia (non-native)
|Mustela eversmannii||Lesson, 1827||Steppe polecat|| Europe & Northern Asia|
|Mustela felipei||Izor and de la Torre, 1978||Colombian weasel||South America|
|Mustela formosana||Lin et Harada, 1998||Taiwan high-mountain least weasel||Taiwan|
|Mustela frenata||Lichtenstein, 1831||Long-tailed weasel|| Middle America|
|Mustela itatsi||Temminck, 1844||Japanese weasel||Japan & Sakhalin Is. (Russia)|
|Mustela kathiah||Hodgson, 1835||Yellow-bellied weasel||Southern Asia|
|Mustela lutreola||(Linnaeus, 1761)||European mink||Europe & Northern Asia|
|Mustela lutreolina||Robinson and Thomas, 1917||Indonesian mountain weasel||Southern Asia|
|Mustela nigripes||(Audubon and Bachman, 1851)||Black-footed ferret||North America|
|Mustela nivalis||Linnaeus, 1766||Least weasel|| Europe & Northern Asia (non-native)|
Southern Asia (non-native)
|Mustela nudipes||Desmarest, 1822||Malayan weasel||Southern Asia|
|Mustela putorius||Linnaeus, 1758||European Polecat||Europe & Northern Asia|
|Mustela sibirica||Pallas, 1773||Siberian weasel|| Europe & Northern Asia|
|Mustela strigidorsa||Gray, 1855||Black-striped weasel||Southern Asia|
|Mustela subpalmata||Hemprich and Ehrenberg, 1833||Egyptian weasel||Egypt|
1 Europe & Northern Asia division excludes China.
In English-language popular culture in particular, the term "weasel" is associated with devious characters.
In traditional symbology however, the weasel is represented as brave, graceful, and a symbol of the brave Christian who triumphs over more powerful foes. A weasel is shown as the companion of St Jordan of Battberg. It was also used in Christian hagiography as a symbol of resurrection, and was respected as a hunter of snakes, and the one creature that could reliably kill a basilisk.
British popular-culture references to weasels are generally specifically to the Least Weasel. For example, Alan Lloyd's novel Kine, about a fictional war in the English countryside between weasels and the invasive species mink, depicts the latter as sadistic, voracious invaders, giants in comparison to the weasels; in American usage, both species would be kinds of weasel. Similarly, in Kenneth Grahame's popular story The Wind in the Willows the villains are the weasels and the stoats, again two species of weasel in American usage. Here everyday usage reflects the original European use of the word weasel for a single species.
A kamaitachi is, according to Japanese myth, a malevolent, weasel-like wind spirit, wielding a sharp sickle. They are nearly always depicted in groups of three individuals, and the three act together in their attacks; the first one hits the victim so that he/she falls to the ground, the second slashes with the sickle, and the third partially heals the wound. Also in Japanese mythology, weasels represent bad luck and death.
In Scotland, Weasel (like snake elsewhere) is slang term for the male reproductive organ. Therefore, reference to a person as 'a weasel' or 'weasely' is significantly more offensive than in other English speaking countries.