Gather ‘round, folks, and I’ll tell you a tale of young mythbri. It was the late 1990s and I had picked up my brother’s copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and was puzzled when I reached a part where Hagrid offers Harry, Ron and Hermione “stoat sandwiches.” For you see, I grew up and still live in the southwest U.S., where mustelids are scarce (to say nothing of stoats). I had no idea what a stoat was, and at the time I assumed it was a kind of toad. Given that stoats seem to be 10 pounds of fight in a half-pound bag, I have to say that a stoat sandwich sounds like much more trouble than it’s worth.
The Stoat (Mustela erminea) is a small mustelid that is quite common in the U.K. and surrounding islands, as well as Eurasia and the cold northern regions of North America. It is also known as the short-tailed weasel and is sometimes called ermine, referring to the white coat it develops during the winter. They are an invasive species in New Zealand, introduced in an attempt to control the rabbit population. Unfortunately, Stoats have had a terrible impact on the bird species native to New Zealand. They are adaptable creatures and are able to thrive in a variety of habitats.
Stoats are small and streamlined, and look very similar to their relatives, the Least Weasels. Adult males can grow up to 12 inches (325 mm) in body length, with an additional 4.7 inches (120 mm) in tail. They weigh approximately 9.1 ounces (258 grams). Sexual dimorphism is pronounced in Stoats, with adult females being significantly smaller. They grow to only 10 inches (270 mm) and weigh only 6.3 ounces (180 grams). The fur of the Stoat is brown during the summer, and white during the winter. Their tails are usually black-tipped during both seasons.
The diet of the Stoat depends on its specific habitat, but they are feisty little things and will take down prey much larger than they are. Rabbits, pikas and voles are some of its primary prey, with smaller rodents, birds and fish filling in the gaps. Occasionally they will take amphibians or reptiles. Because of their size, male Stoats hunt rabbits more often than females. Females are able to chase smaller rodents further into their burrows, however.
The mating season of the Stoat usually takes place between mid-spring and the end of summer. Both male and female Stoats have several different mates each season, and litters are often the product of multiple fathers. Females do not give birth until the following spring, and are able to delay implantation to postpone active gestation. Litters can consist of up to twelve (!) kits, which are completely helpless during their first eight weeks of life. Female kits usually stay in the same general area in which they were born, while male kits travel further to set up their own territories.
Due to its healthy global population, the Stoat is considered to be a species of least concern by the IUCN. Their white winter coats have been particularly prized in the fur trade, usually being a mark of status among wealthy and powerful people. Stoats occupy a variety of roles within the mythology in their various native lands. In Irish folklore, for example, the saliva of a Stoat was thought to be poisonous. Other traditions considered them to be sacred symbols and/or symbols of purity, due to their seasonal white coats.
Source for all images used in this post.