The wild ancestor of a favorite domestic pet!

The European Polecat (Mustela putorius) originated in Europe during the mid-Pleistocene, and 2,000 years ago a subset of these animals began to be domesticated by humans, becoming one of the most popular mammal pets after cats and dogs. Humans recognized the ability of the European Polecat to control the rabbit population, and were even mentioned by Aristotle for their usefulness in this area. It’s likely that it was the Mediterranean subspecies, Mustela putorius aureola, that is the most direct ancestor of the modern domestic ferret.

Like other similar mustelids, the European Polecat has an elongated body, but they are actually more compact that some of their relatives. Across its range throughout Europe and some of Asia, its size varies greatly, and tends to trend along an east-west axis, rather than a north-south axis (common among large mammals like felids and canids). Adult European Polecats can range in body length from 11 to 18 inches (290 to 460 mm), and weigh anywhere from 1.4 to 3.3 pounds (650 to 1,500 grams). Sexual dimorphism is present between males and females, with females being slightly smaller and having more streamlined skulls. Coat color varies by season and territory.

The diet of the European Polecat depends on what is available in its specific territory, but as mentioned above they are very good at keeping down the populations of small rodents (voles, hedgehogs, mice, rats) and rabbits. They will also eat birds (grouse, partridge, pigeons, quail), amphibians, snakes, insects and carrion. They are able to take down prey larger than they are, and they usually kill with a bite to the neck. European Polecats are themselves preyed upon by foxes and domestic cats. There are currently seven recognized subspecies:

  • Mustela putorius putorius (Common Polecat - European Russia, Belarus, central and western Europe, Ukraine)
  • Mustela putorius anglia (Welsh Polecat - Wales and England)
  • Mustela putorius aureola (Mediterranean Polecat - Iberian Peninsula)
  • Mustela putorius caledoniae (Scottish Polecat - Scotland)
  • Mustela putorius furo (Domestic Ferret)
  • Mustela putorius mosquensis (Middle Russian Polecat - European Russia)
  • Mustela putorius rothschildi (Carpathian Polecat - Romania, Dobruja)

The mating season of the European Polecat takes place in spring (March to May), and males will typically mate with multiple females. Pregnant females do not delay implantation of the fertilized embryos like other mustelids - implantation is immediate. Total gestation is approximately 43 days, with litters of five to ten kits being born during the summer. European Polecats are capable of mating and producing offspring with other species like the European Mink, Steppe Polecat and Black-footed Ferret, though the hybrid offspring usually cannot reproduce. This usually occurs in the wild only with the European Mink and Steppe Polecat, and only when one of the species is declining in a specific area.

European Polecats have traditionally been viewed as pests through much of their range, and this perception has persisted in rural areas. Despite this, they are considered to be a species of least concern by the IUCN because of their healthy overall population. European Polecats tend to be solitary creatures, with females establishing fixed territories, and males being more flexible in their territories. They don’t tend to mark their territories, and seem to be slightly more tolerant of members of the same sex than other types of mustelids.

Source for all images used in this post.