Mammals of the order Carnivora and subfamily Mustelinae are commonly called polecats. They look like weasels. Read this story to know about the appearance, habitat, and eating habits of polecats. Also, find some interesting facts about their different species.
Polecats resemble ferrets so closely, that it creates a lot of confusion to distinguish between the two.
What is a Polecat?
The term 'Polecat' refers to the several species of musteline mammals. Furthermore, polecats belong to the order Carnivora and sub-family Mustalinae (family Mustelidae). Their true species include the Striped polecat, the Saharan striped polecat, the Steppe polecat, the American polecat, the European Polecat, and the Marbled Polecat.
Adding to these, skunks, ferrets, and civets are also sometimes referred to as polecats. However, they are not true polecats.
Polecats are closely related to ferrets. They are also associated with other mammals like weasels, minks, otters, badgers, and stoats that belong to the same family Mustelidae.
An interesting thing about polecats is that the term does not refer to one particular taxonomic rank. It is used for several species similar to European polecats. In the United States, the name refers to the black-footed ferret and sometimes to the skunk. In the following sections of this AnimalSake article, we tell you more
▸ Polecats are characterized by their elongated bodies and short legs.
▸ Their faces are blunt with white markings on their muzzle, eyes, and rounded ears.
▸They have claws and a bushy tail.
▸ They are usually dark in color and their bodies are covered in near-black fur. They also have a pale underfur that gives their body a somewhat lighter appearance.
▸ Their body lengths, along with the length of their tails varies depending on the species. However, it may range from 29 cm to 70 cm.
▸ Their body weight also varies accordingly, with a range of 0.3 kg in a few to 2.05 kg in some species.
▸ In some species of polecats, the females have lesser body lengths and weights as compared to males of the same species.
▸ These mammals are carnivorous, feeding primarily on birds and their eggs, lagomorphs, rodents, poultry, lizards, snakes, frogs, and other small animals.
▸ They may also feed on insects and fruits, in case their prey is not easily accessible.
▸ Most of the species are nocturnal and have a solitary nature. In spite of being nocturnal, at times, they may hunt during the day.
▸ They have a very weak eyesight. However, their sense of smell is quite good, which helps them in locating their prey.
▸ They prefer woodland, riverbank, marsh, farmland, hedgerow, and farm building habitats. It is also said that they prefer lowland habitats.
▸ Some polecats may live in burrows. At times, they dig it themselves or they use the burrows of other animals such as rabbits.
▸ They may be hunted by bobcats, owls, coyotes, and dogs.
▸ They may also be hunted by humans.
▸ Polecats are believed to follow a polygamous mating system (having one or more partners). They carry out breeding once a year usually around the months of May or June.
▸ They have a gestation period of 40 to 42 days, after which a litter of 3 to 7 kits is born. They are weaned after 4 weeks.
Facts about Some Polecat Species
Among their various species, the European Polecat inhabits parts of Europe. The Marbled Polecat and Steppe Polecat inhabit Europe and Asia, while the Striped Polecat lives in Africa.
▸ They include seven sub-species namely the Common polecat, Welsh polecat, Mediterranean polecat, Scottish polecat, Middle Russian polecat, Carpathian polecat, and the Domestic ferret.
▸Common polecats have a dark and fluffy fur. They are found in the western and central parts of Europe.
▸Welsh polecats are mainly found in England and Wales.
▸ Mediterranean polecats are characterized by a yellowish underfur. Ferrets may have been derived from this sub-species. These polecats are found in parts of the Iberian Peninsula.
▸ Scottish polecats, as their name suggests, are found in Scotland.
▸ Middle Russian polecats, another sub-species of the European polecats, are light with a less lustrous and a less fluffy fur. They are found in European Russia.
▸ Carpathian polecats, found in Romania, have a fur like that of steppe polecats.
▸ Domestic ferrets are similar in some ways to Steppe polecats. They have a dark fur on their face with patches on the cheeks. Their paws may be white and they have guard hair all over their bodies.
▸ They can be distinguished with the striking patterns on their body, along with the reddish brown and irregular yellow spots or markings on their fur.
▸They are found in dry regions and grasslands of southeastern Europe and western China. They avoid mountainous regions. They rest and breed in the burrows dug by themselves or those by squirrels or other rodents.
▸ When threatened, they emit a foul-smelling secretion from the anal sacs under their tail. They were once hunted for their fur.
▸ The IUCN Red list classified them as vulnerable in 2008. In Pakistan, they are classified as endangered.
▸ Also known as white or masked polecats, they can be distinguished by their more strongly built or massive skull as compared to other species. European polecats are their close relatives.
▸ Yellowish in color, they have dark limbs and a dark mask across their face.
▸ They are native to Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. They are nomadic animals. They inhabit regions where their prey animals, the ground squirrels are found. They live in burrows dug by other animals.
▸ Ground squirrels form a major part of their food. They also feed on hamsters and pikas.
▸ Also known as African polecats or zorillas, they have stripes running down their backs as well as on their cheeks. They are black on the underside, have a white tail and ears, and a white spot on their head. They resemble skunks.
▸ They prefer dry climates and inhabit the savannahs.
▸ They dig for food with the help of their sharp claws. Due to their small stomachs, they need to eat often. Usually, they hunt at night.
▸ They mark their territory with their feces and anal spray. The anal secretion also serves as their defense mechanism. They are aggressive in nature.
▸ The term 'polecat' is believed to have come from a French word poule-chat which means chicken-cat.
▸ These mammals were hunted by humans mainly for their fur.
▸ As mentioned above, they are closely related to ferrets and are believed to be their ancestor. Moreover, they can interbreed with them. Some possible distinguishing factors between them may be the larger heads of polecats and the higher coat color variations in ferrets.
▸ Crossing the European polecat with a ferret gives a hybrid that is called polecat-ferret. These have a white patch on their throat and white feet and hair. Their color may vary, depending on how much color they get from each parent. The hybrids are healthier and have a better eyesight. However, they dislike being caged.
▸ Polecats have glands that eject an ill-smelling fluid on being startled or threatened. This ability helps protect them from their predators. They also use this foul smell to mark their territory.
▸ Even skunks are known for their ability to spray a strong-smelling liquid. This similarity may be the reason why skunks are referred to as polecats. However, the two are related only distantly.
▸ It is believed that these mammals are valuable predators since they help keep the populations of rabbits, mice, and rats in control.
▸ It has been observed that these mammals are frequently killed in road accidents. This is because they usually get attracted and move towards roadkill, in order to feed on it.
During the 19th century, polecats were widely spread in most parts of Britain. However, their numbers reduced to a great extent due to various reasons such as persecution by gamekeepers, habitat fragmentation, and the heavy killing for their fur.
As a result, their range got reduced to Wales with a great decline in their number. However, now their populations have increased again and they can be found all over Wales, as well as parts of Central Southern England. Moreover, they are spreading in a steady manner from these areas.