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What Do Ermine Eat?

Ermines, or Musetela erminea, are a type of weasel that is commonly known as a stoat or short-tailed weasel. Although they appear small and shy, don’t mistake their appearance for weakness. Ermines are fierce predators with impressive hunting tactics. In this article, we’ll explore ermine diets in the wild, and discuss how they sustain themselves in the winter. 

What is an Ermine? 

What is an Ermine

Some people use the terms ermine, weasel, and mink interchangeably. But there are distinct differences between each word. The term “weasel” refers to a large genus of mammals called Mustela, of the Mustelidae family. 

The Mustela family includes creatures such as weasels, stoats, ferrets, polecats, and minks. All weasels share similar features – they are small, with thin bodies and proportionally short legs. 

The main difference between a mink and an ermine is size. Mink are much larger, weighing in at about 3lbs and up to 18 inches in length. Ermine usually only weigh around 0.3lbs. 

Ermine also change colors throughout the seasons. In the summer, stoats are brown with white bellies. Mink remain either brown or black all year.  

What Does an Ermine Eat?

Ermine prey on small vertebrates – usually warm-blooded creatures that are no bigger than a rabbit. Although mammals are their meal of choice, they have a backup plan when food is scarce. An ermine’s diet typically includes a variation of the following:

  • Rabbits
  • Pikas
  • Shrews
  • Hamsters
  • Squirrels
  • Chipmunks
  • Rats
  • Mice

If necessary, an ermine will feed on birds, fish, insects, small reptiles, and eggs to survive. They’ll also supplement with an occasional decaying carcass for extra sustenance. This is more common in winter when resources are hard to come by, and in harsher climates. 

What Do Ermine Eat in the Tundra Biome?

The climate is much tougher in the tundra, and ermines have to make do with hunting in the snow. In these harsh conditions, ermines mainly subsist on lemmings and small rodents. 

Short-tailed weasels don’t have the benefit of working as a team to collect food, either. They are solitary creatures who must rely on themselves to survive. In the tundra as well as winter anywhere, ermines sometimes rely on food that they have tucked away from an earlier haul.

Ermines avoid competition while they hunt by marking their territory boundaries and patrolling the perimeter. This warns other ermines and competitors for prey to steer clear of their zone. 

How Big of Prey Can an Ermine Take Down?

how big of prey can an ermine take down

Ermines are skilled hunters who search for their prey at night, for the most part. They hunt and eat daily in order to keep up with their body’s high energy needs.

Since ermines have long bodies to pin down their prey, along with great speed, they can take down animals that are large in comparison to an ermine’s body. 

Stouts have been known to take down animals that are up to ten times their body weight! Their sharp claws and teeth are beneficial as well. 

Stouts use their expert sense of hearing, smell, sight, and touch to search for prey animals. They search every crevice to find their meals. Their hunting strategy involves weaving around in a zigzag pattern while leaping around 20 inches off of the ground with each step.  

When they spot their next meal, ermines follow the creature until they are close enough, before quickly latching onto the back of the animal’s neck with its teeth.

They use their body weight and claws to hold their prey by wrapping themselves around the creature. An ermine’s prey ends up dying from the bites to the back of their head.

Do Ermines Have Predators?

Even though ermines are excellent hunters, they do live under the threat of larger, more vicious carnivores. Ermines have to look out for the following predators:

  • Gray and red foxes
  • Raptors
  • Domestic cats
  • Snakes
  • Dogs
  • American martens
  • American badgers
  • Fishers

Ermines don’t go down without a fight, though. Their formidable teeth and claws make great defense mechanisms. 

Ermines are fascinating creatures that are equal parts cute and impressive with their fierce survival skills. It’s amazing how such small, light creatures are able to survive in places that most humans will not.

To learn more about their hunting prowess and see them in action, check out this YouTube video:

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