Ermines, or Mustela erminea, are a type of weasel that belongs to the mustelid family. They are commonly known as stoats or short-tailed weasels. Ermines are one of the smallest predators in the world (second only to their cousin, the least weasel) and are successful hunters in many parts of the globe. In this article, we’ll discuss the different habitats that ermines have adapted to survive within, including the tundra.
What You'll Learn Today
Where Do Ermines Live?
Ermines live in a wide range of climates throughout the world. They are abundant in parts of South, Western, East, and Central Asia. They can also be found in parts of the United States and Canada.
Ermines primarily live in temperate regions, which are areas that have mild summer and winters, with both rain and periods of drought scattered throughout the year. Although they are widespread, stoats can be hard to spot in their natural habitat.
Stoats like to live in woodlands and can often be found near rivers, marshes, and areas close to forests or dense shrubbery. They mostly live slightly underground (about 11 inches) but have also been known to climb trees and swim when necessary.
Ermines make their dens in just about any nook or cranny they can find, including rodent burrows, inside of stone walls, or in hollow logs. They line their nests with dry foliage from plants, fur, and feathers from their prey to keep them insulated.
Do Ermines Live in the Arctic?
Ermines survive in a surprisingly wide range of environments, including forests, grasslands, rocky/icy areas, and the taiga. They also live in the tundra, which is a treeless region found in the Arctic.
The tundra is a cold, windy climate with little rainfall that is under a blanket of snow for most of the year. The Siberian tundra, for example, is the coldest biome in the world. It’s so far north that it is almost totally dark through the whole winter season.
What are the Adaptations of an Ermine?
Ermines are very small creatures – they weigh in anywhere from 3 to 15 ounces, and have a body length of 7-13 inches. Their slight size makes it impressive that they can survive in such harsh, cold conditions.
Here are some of the ways that stoats adapt to their environment:
- Fur color: Normally, ermines have brown fur. In the winter, they swap the brown for a pure white coat, which blends in with the snow to camouflage ermines from predators. The white fur is also thicker to keep them warm.
- Body size: Ermines are long and slender, meaning they have a higher surface area to volume ratio to release heat from their bodies. They are also thin enough to fit into small spaces for shelter, warmth, and hunting.
- Delayed implantation: Stoats breed in the summer when the weather is warm. The fertilized egg remains inactive for 8-9 months, at which point it develops quickly, and females give birth in the spring. Breeding and bearing their young in warmer weather gives females and babies the best chance of survival.
What Adaptations do Animals in the Tundra Have?
Ermines aren’t the only creatures that have developed the traits necessary for surviving in cold, harsh climates. Here are some animals that have developed unique adaptations to survive the tundra:
Caribou have split-hooves, which allow them to spread out for better weight distribution while walking in the snow to keep from sinking. The hooves also function as paddles while swimming.
A caribou’s body is compact and stout, which retains more body heat. Their double-layered fur helps to keep the heat in as well.
In the winter, caribou use their hooves to dig into the snow to find and feed on lichen. Their bodies contain special bacteria that allow them to digest this low-nutrition food, which is abundant in their climate.
A polar bear’s white fur helps them blend into the snow and camouflage themselves from their prey. This fur is very thick and covers dense layers of fat to insulate from the cold.
Their fur is also greasy to repel water so that they can dry quickly after swimming to keep from losing excess body heat.
Like the ermine, arctic fox’s coats change from brown or grey to white to hide from their prey while hunting. Their small ears point forwards, which allows them to hear their prey (lemmings) burrowing through the snow and pounce unexpectedly.
The muskox has strong hooves which help them break through the ice to drink the water underneath the surface. They also have a strong sense of vision, even in bright lights and the dark, to help them avoid surprise attacks from predators.
Muskoxen also use their impressive horns and massive body weight to defend themselves from predators.
Just like humans, animals have been adapting to whichever type of environment they are occupying for thousands of years. Naturally, the creatures with stronger adaptations stick around for longer.
If you’re interested in learning more about the amazing animals (or you want to have it as a pet – not recommended) that thrive in the coldest conditions, check out this National Geographic video: