Definitions

weasel

weasel

[wee-zuhl]
weasel, name for certain small, lithe, carnivorous mammals of the family Mustelidae (weasel family). Members of this family are generally characterized by long bodies and necks, short legs, small rounded ears, and medium to long tails. All have scent glands, generally used for territorial markings but in some animals for defense. True weasels belong to the genus Mustela, with species found in Eurasia, N Africa, and the Americas. Weasels are very active and chiefly terrestrial but are able to climb trees. They prey on small animals by night, often killing more than they eat, and spend the day in dens made in holes in the ground, rock piles, or hollow stumps. Although they are notorious for destruction of poultry, the damage they do is far outweighed by their value as destroyers of rodents. Weasels are usually brown, with white underparts. Species living in snowy regions acquire white coats in winter and are then known as ermine. The most widely distributed weasel, Mustela erminea, is known in Europe as the stoat and in North America as the short-tailed weasel. It is about 16 in. (40 cm) long including the 5-in. (13-cm) tail; it has a white winter coat through much of its range and a characteristic black tail tip the year around. It ranges from the Arctic Ocean to central Asia, S Europe and the central United States. The much smaller M. nivalis, known in Europe simply as weasel, is found in Europe, N and central Asia, and N Africa. It turns white only in the extreme northern parts of its range. Among the New World weasels is the tiny least weasel, measuring only 7 or 8 in. (18-20 cm) in total length; it ranges from the N central United States to N Canada and Alaska. There are many other true weasel species, mostly in the Old World. Besides these, the genus Mustela includes the polecat, ferret, and mink. African animals of several genera in the weasel family are called striped weasels; they are characterized by conspicuous black and white markings and, in some cases, by the use of scent for defense. Among these is a skunklike animal with a powerful odor known as the zorilla. The weasel family also includes the marten, fisher, and wolverine, as well as the more distantly related skunk, badger, honey badger (or ratel), and otter. Weasels are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Carnivora, family Mustelidae.

See B. Gilbert, The Weasel (1970); C. King, Weasels and Stoats (1989).

Long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata).

Any of several genera (carnivore family Mustelidae) of voracious nocturnal predators found throughout the Americas, Africa, and Eurasia. Weasels have slender bodies and necks, small flat heads, short legs, clawed toes, dense short fur, and slim pointed tails. The size and relative length of the tail vary among species. Their total length is 7–20 in. (17–50 cm), and they may weigh 1–12 oz (30–350 g). The approximately 10 New World and Eurasian species of Mustela are reddish brown; in cold regions, their winter coat turns white, and the pelt, especially of the stoat (M. erminea), is called ermine. Weasels generally hunt alone, feeding on rodents, fish, frogs, and birds' eggs.

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Weasels are mammals in the genus Mustela of the Mustelidae family.

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.

Collective nouns for a group of weasels include boogle, gang, pack, and confusion.

Weasels are found all across the world except for Australia and neighbouring islands.

Species

The following information is according to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System, and IUCN 2006 for the extinct Mustela macrodon.
Mustela africana Desmarest, 1800 Tropical weasel South America
Mustela altaica Pallas, 1811 Mountain weasel Europe & Northern Asia
Southern Asia
Mustela erminea Linnaeus, 1758 Stoat
Ermine
Short-tailed weasel
Australia (non-native)
Europe & Northern Asia
North America
Southern Asia (non-native)
Mustela eversmannii Lesson, 1827 Steppe polecat Europe & Northern Asia
Southern 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
North America
South 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)
North America
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
Southern 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.

Popular culture references

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.

Jaques: I thank it. More! I pr'ythee more. I can suck melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs. More! I pr'ythee, more. (As You Like It, William Shakespeare, Act 2, Scene 5, Lines 9-13)
God bless you, sir!
Polonius: My lord, the queen would speak with you, and presently.
Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud, that 's almost in the shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and 't is like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks, it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or, like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.
Hamlet: Then will I come to my mother by-and-by. — They fool me to the top of my bent. — I will come by-and-by.
Polonius: I will say so.
Hamlet: By-and-by is easily said. — Leave me, friends. (Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, William Shakespeare, Act 3, Scene 2, Lines 374-388)
Many of these references tend to treat weasels as a species rather than a genus; for example, in Brian Jacques' Redwall series, weasels are one of many villainous races, along with rats and ferrets — although ferrets, biologically speaking, are a species of weasel. In the Dilbert cartoons, some of the most devious characters are portrayed as weasels or with weasel-like features. In reference to the weasel's reputation for skullduggery, the phrase "weasel words" means insincere or devious speech.
One of our defects as a nation is a tendency to use what have been called ‘weasel words’. When a weasel sucks eggs the meat is sucked out of the egg. If you use a ‘weasel word’ after another, there is nothing left of the other. (Theodore Roosevelt, speech in St Louis, 31 May 1916)
Elements of the American media described the declaration by France, Germany, and Belgium against the 2003 invasion of Iraq as "The Axis Of Weasel", a pun on the "Axis of Evil". A popular cynical office poster states, "Eagles may soar, but weasels don't get sucked into jet engines," meaning that office workers who stay low and act in their own self-interest may be less likely to rise in the organization but are also less likely to be destroyed as a result of office politics.

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.

References

  • Nowak, Ronald M., and Ernest P. Walker. Walker's Carnivores of the World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. ISBN 0801880335, ISBN 0801880327.

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