It could be a scene from an old Western: in the cold winter wasteland of the Arb, under a setting sun, the bloodless corpse of a vole hangs from the fork of a small bush. But there are no saloons or duels in this story: this is the work of a weasel.
The long-tailed weasel weighs seven ounces, while the short-tailed weasel weighs only two to five ounces. However, despite their small size, weasels are among the fiercest of predators. Due to a high metabolism, weasels eat 20-30% of their body weight every day. Yet, weasels often kill more prey than they can consume because, their hunting reflexes are triggered by movement instead of hunger. The weasels store the extra prey away from other predators on branches where the prey will remain refrigerated, or in underground caches near their homes. One cache has been found containing nearly 150 voles.
Although weasels prefer voles and mice, weasels will also hunt frogs, rabbits, birds, snakes, worms and insects. Weasels kill their mammalian prey similarly to jaguars, by pouncing and biting through important blood vessels in the prey’s throat and spine. Weasels begin eating by licking blood off their prey and then peeling the skin back to access the brain. The skin will be entirely inside-out by the time the weasel is finished.
But the weasel’s macabre hunting habits are not the only characteristics of these alert and agile mammals. They are also famous for frenzied and gymnastic “weasel war dances” which can be seen in many online videos. Additionally, they are known for their bravery: the Algonquian-speaking tribes tell stories of a weasel who sneaks inside a man-eating monster and eats the monster’s heart. Lastly, farmers are often thankful for weasels, who keep pests away and weasels are also important in regulating mammal populations in the Arb. So, if you happen to find a dead vole perched on a bush, don’t call the sheriff: you’ve just stumbled across the weasel’s refrigerator.
Eliza Malakoff ‘19, for the Cole Student Naturalists
Photo credits: Teaser- Diane Angell, On Page- Steve Hillebrand