The Mustela genus contains a wide variety of small creatures that sometimes look similar. Naturally, this can lead to some confusion over species identification. When coupled with the fact that two English-speaking nations refer to creatures in the genus differently, it’s no wonder that not everyone knows the difference between an ermine and a weasel. In this article, we’ll go over how to tell the difference, and how to identify weasels.
What You'll Learn Today
Are Weasels and Ermine the Same?
Many people are surprised to learn that an ermine is the same thing as a weasel. To be more specific, an ermine is a type of weasel.
All weasels belong to the genus Mustela, which is in a family of animals called Mustelidae. Although all weasels are in the same genus, Mustela members are not all weasels. Mustela includes many species, including:
- Least weasels
- Short-tailed weasels/stoat
When the term “weasel” originated, at first it only identified to one species of the genus – the least weasel, or Mustela nivalis. The least weasel is the smallest member of the genus.
Over time, the Mustela genus grew to refer to many other related creatures. In British English, when one mentions the term “weasel”, they are still typically referring to one specific species – the least weasel. In American English, “weasel” encompasses several different species.
Is an Ermine a Long-Tailed Weasel?
Ermines, also known as short-tailed weasels or stoats, are one of the smaller species of the weasel family. Although they may look similar, they are different from long-tailed weasels. Here are some of the distinct characteristics of each creature:
Long-Tailed Weasel (Mustela frenata)
Also known as the bridled weasel, this furry mustelid is native to southern Canada, the United States, Mexico, Central America, and South America. To make things even more confusing, long-tailed weasels are also sometimes called big stoats.
Like ermines, the long-tailed weasel has a long, slender body, short legs, brown fur on the top, and white fur on its belly. Both species have black tips at the end of their tail.
In the winter, some long-tailed weasels gradually shed their brown fur and replace it with a white coat. This only happens in certain regions.
Long-tailed weasels, as you might have guessed, have longer tails than ermines. They typically weigh anywhere from 3 to 9 ½ oz, with a length of 11 to 22 inches long.
Short-tailed Weasel (Mustela erminea)
Ermines are mostly native to Eurasia and northern parts of the United States and Canada. These petite creatures generally weigh around 2 to 5 oz and measure 7 to 14 inches long.
Ermines are known for the pristine white coat they don in the winter. They molt each winter, gradually growing white fur in place of their usual brown.
Unlike long-tailed weasels, all ermines usually molt regardless of geographic location. This is partially why ermines were historically sought after amongst the wealthy and royalty – their pure white coat was used to make clothing and decor, which became a status symbol.
How Do You Identify a Weasel?
While there are many species of weasels, they all share some basic characteristics. Here’s how to tell if you’ve spotted a weasel:
- Body: Weasels have long, thin bodies with short legs in comparison.
- Head: They have rounded ears and small heads, which sit atop long necks.
- Movement: Due to their body shape, they have a distinct walk – their bodies curve upwards, which evokes the movement of a worm when they walk.
- Habitat: You can expect to find a weasel mostly in wooded areas amongst lush foliage, tree roots, and hidden in piles of rocks. If you catch a glimpse, it’s usually fleeting, since they are high-energy creatures that move very quickly.
- Color: Weasels have brown fur on the top of their bodies, with white fur on their belly. Most species turn white in the winter, aside from some in select locations.
Despite the discrepancy in the nomenclature, ermines are a great representative of the weasel genus. Like the other species of mustelids, their cute, small, furry bodies are in stark contrast to their vicious hunting habits.
To learn more general facts about this fascinating animal, check out this video: