From polecats to ferrets: domestication of mustelids

Polecats and ferrets get along like wolves and dogs or wild cats and domestic cats. This means that polecats are the wild form and ferrets are the domesticated pet form of the same animal species. The small predators from the marten family were probably domesticated around 2,500 years ago in order to use them for hunting.

The resemblance between polecats and ferrets is unmistakable in this fellow - Shutterstock / Philip Bird LRPS CPAGB

The resemblance between polecats and ferrets is unmistakable in this fellow – Shutterstock / Philip Bird LRPS CPAGB

Ferrets were and are used primarily for hunting wild rabbits. The tamed polecat easily crawls into the rabbit burrows and chases the animals out so that they can be killed outside by hunters or caught with the help of nets or hawks. But the marten animals were also able to do their job as pest control for mice and rats long before they developed into pure pets.

Polecats as ancestors of ferrets

There are three types of polecats: the European polecat – also known as the forest polecat – the steppe polecat and the black-footed polecat. It is not clear whether the ferret descended from the polecat or the polecat – both are possible. The steppe polecat is slightly larger and lighter in color than the European polecat and is found in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Manchuria. European polecats can also be found further west; as the name suggests, their habitat extends across Europe, with the exception of Ireland and parts of Scandinavia. The Russian Ural Mountains roughly represent the boundary of the habitat. Polecats were also introduced to New Zealand.

Polecats are said to have been tamed and used for hunting as early as ancient Greece. Around 2,500 years ago, Aristophanes mentioned ferrets in his comedy “Die Acharner” and Aristoteles also described ferret hunting. According to Pliny the Elder, the small predators helped the Romans fight a plague of rabbits in the first century AD.

The theologian and naturalist Thomas de Cantipré described the animal in detail in the 13th century and pictorial representations of a ferret hunt appeared in the 14th century. Nowadays, however, this form of hunting is no longer very widespread. Ferrets are mostly kept as pets; the clever marten animals are easy to tame and are lovable companions when kept in a species-appropriate manner, who can also walk on a leash, for example. NABU points out that ferret owners must be careful that the animals do not escape, as they could otherwise mix with the wild polecat, which is undesirable for reasons of species population and species protection.

Differences between polecats and ferrets?

In the wild, both the steppe polecat and the forest polecat live predominantly on the ground and climb little or not at all. Ferrets, on the other hand, love having climbing facilities in their enclosure. What the wild and tamed forms of polecats have in common, however, is their preference for ingenious hiding places. In addition to self-digged burrows, European polecats also prefer rock crevices, abandoned rabbit burrows, wall niches and building cracks as well as hollow tree trunks. The steppe polecat digs up the dwellings of its prey – ground squirrels, hamsters and pikas – and pulls them out to eat and nest in their burrows. Ferrets like to hole up wherever they can.

Polecats can swim and dive well, they like to eat amphibians, fish, snakes, but also rodents, rabbits, birds and eggs. The ferret diet is similar in that it is also very meat-heavy and requires a lot of animal protein. However, amphibians or snakes are usually not on their menu. Male ferrets are up to 60 centimeters long (including the tail) and weigh up to around 2,000 grams, the ferrets (female ferrets) are up to 40 centimeters long and weigh 850 grams. Their wild relatives also have this clear size difference between the sexes, but are slightly smaller overall – the male steppe polecat can grow up to 56 centimeters and the male forest polecat up to 46 centimeters long. Polecats are active at dusk and at night, while ferrets, like domestic cats, can adapt to the daily rhythm of their people.

Other relatives of polecats and ferrets

Polecats and ferrets belong to the Mustela genus of the mustelid family. The mustela genus includes polecats, weasels and minks. The marten family also includes badgers, otters and of course the true martens. The marten family is classified one level above it in the group of marten relatives – small pandas, skunks or skunks and small bears (e.g. the raccoon) are their cousins. The sister group of mustelids includes all seals including the hound seal, eared seal and walrus.

The superfamily of seals and mustelid relatives are the canines, which together with the felines form the order of carnivores. In this respect, polecats are distantly related to dogs, including our domestic dog, wolves and foxes, and bears, including the giant panda.

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