Q: A little white weasel with a black-tipped tail jumped in front of me when I was hiking up Perseverance Trail recently. What is this?
A: You saw an ermine, also known as a short-tailed weasel. These sleek little predators are much more common than people realize, but because they're small, quick and well camouflaged they often go unnoticed.
Ermine are about a foot long and weigh 7 or 8 ounces. An ermine skull looks like a tiny wolverine skull, and that makes sense, as the ermine is the second-smallest member of the weasel family. The wolverine is the biggest, at about 50 pounds, and in Alaska this family of agile predators ranges from otters and wolverines down to fishers, the cat-size marten, mink, ermine and the little least weasel, the smallest carnivore on Earth at just 3 ounces. Other mustelids - or weasel cousins - include ferrets, skunks and badgers.
Ermine are found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. They're called stoats in Europe, and they inhabit Eurasia, northern North America and all of Alaska except the Western Aleutians and Bering Sea islands.
Ermine trimmed the robes of European royalty. In Southeast Alaska, ermine adorned the ceremonial regalia of high-cast Tlingits. Tlingit artist Rick Beasley said he's seen historical photos of ermine tunics worn by Natives of the Yakutat area.
"The fur is absolutely gorgeous," he said.
You sometimes see the snow-white pelts hanging from headdresses and hats; and Beasley has seen dance regalia bedecked with as many as 100 pelts, swinging and accentuating the dancer's movements.
Ermine are beautiful, but are not very valuable anymore and are seldom trapped in Alaska. While a trapper may get $30 to $40 for the pelt of a marten, an ermine fetches only about $1.25.
Like the least weasel, ermine have white and brown color phases. Around April of each year they turn a rich chocolate brown with yellowish-white underparts. In October they shed their summer coat for their white winter fur. The tail always keeps its black tip.
The black-tipped tail may be a defense strategy. In the winter, a potential predator may see only the black tip of the tail moving against the white snow, and if it strikes at this black spot, it will miss the ermine's body.
In winter ermine can dive under the snow and travel below the surface. On top of the snow, ermine tracks often appear as a pair of slightly offset prints about 14 inches apart. The nickel-size paw prints are oval shaped, and ermine usually bound along with their back feet landing in the same place as their front feet, so you see two paw prints, not four.
Ermine poke under fallen logs and into piles of leaves, hunting mice, voles and shrews. They prefer to hunt on the ground, but can climb trees and swim and also will eat birds, fish, insects and even hares. They hunt day and night and typically pounce on their prey with their forefeet and kill with a well-placed bite to the back of the neck.
Ermine den in stumps and logs, rock outcrops and under old buildings. They also take over the burrows of mice and other rodents. They usually line their nests with mouse fur or feathers from the critters they kill.
A female has a home range of about 40 acres, a male's home range is larger, and they return over and over to work the same forage areas. Forest edge habitat near water is preferred over dense forest, and ermine live from sea level to alpine, in clearcuts and old growth, just about anywhere mice and voles are found. Like other predators of small game in Alaska, ermine abundance follows the boom-and-bust population cycles of their prey. When prey is plentiful, an ermine will kill more than it can eat and cache the extra.
Jack Whitman, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, once wrestled with an ermine on a hunting trip. Whitman had killed a Dall sheep in the evening and field-dressed it as darkness fell. He cached the heart and liver in the rocks and returned in the morning to retrieve them. When he picked up a piece of liver, he found a struggling ermine firmly attached to the bottom.
"This little weasel had this chunk of liver in his mouth - it was probably twice his size and weight," Whitman said. "I lifted it and he just hung on, growling and glancing up at me, indignant that I would try to take this thing away from him. Most animals would just drop down in the rocks and forget about it, but he wasn't about to let loose."
"They're amazing. Their heart is bigger than their body," he added. "They think they're the toughest critter in the woods."
Former Empire writer Riley Woodford works for the Division of Wildlife Conservation at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. For comments or to pose a question, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.