The Mustelidae, the weasel family, is large (some 70 species) and includes the weasels, minks, ferrets and polecats, martens, badgers, and otters. They all have, to some degree, the long, thin body and short legs that are characteristic of weasels. The genus Mustela is the largest in the family and contains some 13 to 16 species, depending on which taxonomist one asks. Besides weasels, this genus includes the ferrets or polecats, and the minks. These groups are generally divided by size and coloration, which match evolutionary relatedness only in part. Weasels are usually considered to be those that are small, brown on the back, and white to cream to yellow on the belly, and that specialize in hunting the smallest of the rodents. Ferrets and polecats are generally larger than weasels and have distinct, black masks on their faces and black legs and tails. Minks are dark brown all over, except for light patches on their chins or chests, and are adapted to foraging in streams and wetlands. They live mostly on aquatic and semi-aquatic prey such as fish and frogs, water voles, and water birds.
Weasels live on all continents except Australia and, of course, Antarctica. The three species that are most common throughout the north temperate and boreal zones are by far the best known weasels: the short-tailed weasel or stoat, Mustela erminea; the long-tailed weasel, M. frenata; and the least weasel or common weasel, M. nivalis. These three species are the subjects of this book. At least six other species may have lifestyles similar to the three best known ones, and are sometimes called weasels (Macdonald 2001): the tropical, M. africana, and the Columbian, M. felipei, weasels of South America; the mountain, M. altaica, yellow-bellied, M. kathiah, back-striped, M. strigidorsa, and barefoot, M. nudipes, weasels of Asia; and the Egyptian weasel, M. subpalmata, if it is truly a species distinct from M. nivalis (van Zyll de Jong 1992; Reig 1997; Abramov 2000; Abramov & Baryshnikov 2000). An undescribed, small weasel has been reported from the island of Taiwan recently, but may be a form of M. nivalis (Hosoda etal. 2000).
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