Mountain Weasel, Mustela altaica

The mountain weasel (Mustela altaica), also known as the solongoi, pale weasel, or Altai weasel, can be found in a range that extends from the Himalayas to Mongolia and includes Ladakh, India, northeastern China, Kazakhstan, Tibet, Korea, southern Siberia, and areas of Russia. It prefers a habitat within grassy woodlands and rocky tundra areas with dense vegetation, at altitudes of at least 11,480 feet.

The mountain weasel displays a slight sexual dimorpism, with males growing larger than females. Males can reach an average body length of up to eleven inches, with a tail length between four and six inches and an average weight between eight and twelve ounces. Females can reach an average body length of up to two inches, with a tail length of up to five inches and a weight between four and eight ounces. The summer fur of this species is grey to greyish brown in color, with light yellow fur occurring sporadically throughout the coat. During the fall season, this coat is molted and the winter coat comes in, which is dark yellow in color with brown throughout it. Both the winter coat and summer coat will be molted each year. The tail is typically reddish in color, while the underbelly is yellow to cream in color throughout the year.

The mountain weasel is nocturnal and solitary in nature, but will communicate with other weasels by using visual cues and vocalizations. The breeding season for this species occurs between February and March, when males are thought to gather in groups with multiple females. After a pregnancy period that lasts between thirty to forty-nine days, a litter between one and eight young is born. Some births do not occur in May, because females are able to delay implantation if conditions do not support maintaining young. Young are weaned at around two months of age, but will stay with their littermates and mother until the fall season.

Unlike some mammals in the California suborder, the mountain weasel is a carnivore. Its diet mainly consists of voles and pikas, but it will also consume fish, frogs, lizards, rabbits, ground squirrels, muskrats, and insects. This species is known for curbing the populations of pests, particularly rodent species. It is thought that the main predators if this species are birds of prey, although land predators like foxes and wolves may hunt it.

The main threats to the mountain weasel include habitat loss and dangers from human encroachment. These include heavy road traffic, competition with domesticated livestock for viable habitat, and the decrease in prey that has been caused by humans poisoning the pika. The average lifespan of this species is about ten years.

The mountain weasel appears in the appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) along with forty five other species of animals and plant life. These are protected from trade in at least one country of its range. It is also protected by law in India, under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 in schedule II part II, which can punish offenders with a fine and prison time.

One method of conservation that has been proposed for the mountain weasel consists of initiating and building protected wildlife reserves, but this involves a large number of efforts that cannot always be met. Two proposed protected areas in China were denied funding, but one was established in Kazakhstan called The West Altai State Nature Reserve. This area protects fifty-two species, including the mountain weasel and its main prey item, the pika. Although there are no established programs that protect the mountain weasel specifically, there are reserves like that in Kazakhstan that protects other mammals that are associated with it. These include Sanjiangyuan, Changtang and Kekexili reserves in China.

Another conservation effort proposed to save the mountain weasel is to study the methods used to protect the European mink. This species decreased due to disease and habitat destruction, but a breeding program was created to conserve them in Russia. Many European minks have been successfully re-introduced into the wild, although there is a risk of failure in some individuals. This method is thought to a viable possibility to bolster the population of mountain weasels. Other possible efforts include building passageways between wild lands and farmlands to allow the weasel to pass unharmed, but this would require cooperation from farmers. The mountain weasel currently appears on the IUCN Red List with a conservation status of “Near Threatened.”

Image Caption: Mountain weasel (Mustela altaica) at Hemis National Park. Credit: Karunakar Rayker /Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)