At full adult size total body length from head to rump is 170 mm to 330 mm. Males are generally twice as large as females, with males weighing from 67 to 116 grams and females from 25 to 80 grams. The tail length is about 35% of the total body length, ranging from 42mm to 120mm. Ermine have the typical weasel form: long body, short legs, long neck supporting a triangular head, slightly protruding round ears, bright black eyes, and long whiskers. Their short, moderately fine fur is white in the winter and the tip of the tail is black. In the summer, the fur on the back is chocolate brown while the fur on the belly extending to the upper lip is yellowish white.
Ermine are distributed all the way around northern part of the globe. They are found in the north temperate regions of Eurasia and North America. In the New World, they range from east to west in a broad belt from the Arctic Ocean and adjacent islands of the Canadian Archipelago southward into the northern United States. Ermine are absent from the Great Plains.
Ermine prefer woodlands near rivers, marshes, shrubby fencerows, and open areas adjacent to forests or shrub borders. Although ermine live primarily on the ground, they climb trees and swim well.
Tree roots, hollow logs, stone walls, and rodent burrows are used as dens. Dens are usually around 300 mm below ground. Ermine line their nests with dry plant material, and fur and feathers from prey. Side cavities of burrows are used for storing food and as bathrooms.
Both male and female ermine have many different mates.
Ermine mate in late spring to early summer. Females produce only 1 litter per year. Young are born in April or May after an average pregnancy of 280 days, which includes an 8 to 9 month period in which the young do not develop. Longer days beginning in March trigger the young to begin developing. Litter size ranges from 3 to 18 offspring and averages 4 to 9. Young are blind and helpless. They are covered with fine white hair, and a prominent dark mane of dense fur develops around the neck by the third week (function unknown). The young grow quickly and are able to hunt with their mother by their eighth week. Although females do not reach adult size until a least 6 weeks after birth, they are able to mate when they are 60 to 70 days old, often before they are weaned. Males do not breed or grow to adult size until their second summer.
Females in nature may survive for at least 2 breeding seasons, while males generally do not survive this long. The number of offspring that each ermine has in its lifetime depends on the amount of food that is available.
Only females care for their offspring, nursing and protecting them until they become independent. The young are born blind and helpless.
The average life span of an ermine is 1 to 2 years; the maximum is 7 years. (Ruff and Wilson, 1999)
The ermine's slender, agile body allows it to move swiftly both above ground and through underground burrows. Females hunt in tunnels more than males, which may explain the higher number of males that are trapped. Ermine can also run easily across snow. This ideal predator hunts in a zigzag pattern, moving by a series of leaps of up to 50 cm each. Ermine investigate every hole and crevice, often stopping to survey their surroundings by raising their heads and standing upright on their hindlegs. They may travel up to 15 km in one night.
Adult males dominate females and young. Females tend to remain in their birth place throughout their lives. Males spread out and claim large territories that usually contain or overlap females' territories.
Male and female ermine only associate with one another during the breeding season.
Ermine territories change size with prey abundance. The maximum home range size is about 20 hectares (0.2 square kilometers). When there is a lot of food, individuals don't need to travel as far to hunt and can live in smaller areas of about 10 hectares (0.1 square kilometers). Home ranges of males are usually twice the size of female home ranges. These solitary mammals keep others out by patrolling their territory boundaries and marking them with scent.
Ermine have keen senses of smell, vision, hearing, and touch that help them to locate prey. Most members of the weasel family are fairly quiet animals, but some vocalizations may be used for communication. Ermine probably use odor to let other ermine know they are ready to mate.
Ermine are carnivores that hunt mostly at night. They are predators on small, warm-blooded vertebrates, preferably mammals of rabbit size and smaller. When mammalian prey is scarce, ermine eat birds, eggs, frogs, fish, and insects. In severe climates, ermine often hunt under snow and survive entirely on small rodents and lemmings. Ermine must eat daily to meet their high energy demands. They store leftover meals as a way of dealing with these demands.
When an ermine senses a prey animal, it approaches as closely as possible. With incredible speed it grasps the back of the victim's head and neck with sharp teeth, and wraps its body and feet around the victim. The victim dies from repeated bites to the base of the skull. Ermine have keen senses that help them locate prey. Hares and rodents are mainly followed by scent, insects by sound, and fish by sight.
Ermine are important predators on small mammal communities in the ecosystems in which they live.
Many ermine die from a parasitic worm that infects the nose. Eventually the worm causes holes to form in the skull and puts pressure on the brain, causing death. Shrews are believed to carry this parasite.
Ermine, and other Mustela species can take domestic fowl when they can gain access to them.
Humans trap thousands of ermine each season, but the demand for pelts has recently decreased. The white winter fur has long been used in trimming coats and making stoles. Ermine are excellent at catching mice, which makes them valuable to humans.
Ermine are not considered threatened or endangered, although hunting pressure in some areas may impact populations severely. (Ruff and Wilson, 1999)
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