Common Names

Weasels of all three species are distinct and easily recognized but, unfortunately, the common name "weasel" can be confusing unless carefully defined. At one extreme, the name can be applied to all members of the weasel family; at the other, it can mean only the smallest member of the genus Mustela, M. nivalis. In North America, "weasel" generally refers to any of the three small, native Mustela species, while in England and New Zealand, "weasel" is reserved for M. nivalis, and M. erminea is called "stoat." In Europe it might be correct and acceptable to apply the American term "ermine" to all European M. erminea, a word that is similar to the French common name "hermine" or the German "Hermelin," but it would not be correct to apply the American name "least weasel" to European M. nivalis except in the far north. So when someone refers to a "weasel," one needs to know the nationality (or accent) of the speaker to know whether the subject is M. nivalis only or any of these small, skinny, graceful critters. Equally confusing, the common name "ermine" is used by some to mean M. erminea only, and by others to mean a weasel of any species when it is in white winter coat.

Using Latin names avoids all confusion, of course; that is, after all, their function. But Latin names can be stultifying. In this book, we use the word "weasel" alone to mean any of the small Mustela species or all of them in general. We refer to M. frenata as the "long-tailed weasel" or "longtail." In North

America, M. erminea is the "short-tailed weasel" or "short-tail," but in the rest of the world, and in most of the scientific literature, it is called the "stoat," so we use "stoat" here. We use "least weasel" to refer to M. nivalis in North America, Asia, and eastern and far northern Europe, and "common weasel" for M. nivalis in Britain, New Zealand (where they were introduced from Britain), western and southern Europe, and northern Africa.

In parts of England, country folk will swear that there are two species of common weasels, the normal one plus a smaller one known as a "grass weasel," "finger weasel," "mouse hunter," or "miniver." Museum biologists have tried to collect specimens of these small weasels, but without success. The best explanation is that people easily become confused by the large difference in size between males and females of the same species, exaggerated by the slow growth rate of young born late in the year, and by imprecise use of common names.

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