The least weasel, little weasel, common weasel, or weasel in the UK and much of the world, is the smallest member of the genus Mustela, family Mustelidae and order Carnivora. It is native to Eurasia, North America and North Africa, has been introduced to New Zealand, Crete, Madeira Island, the Azores, the Canary Islands, São Tomé, the Falkland Islands and Chile, it is classified as least concern by the IUCN, due to its wide distribution and large population throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Least weasels from various parts of its range vary in size; the body is slender and elongated, the legs and tail are short. The colour varies geographically, as does the pelage length of tail; the dorsal surface, flanks and tail of the animal are some shade of brown while the underparts are white. The line delineating the boundary between the two colours is straight. At high altitudes and in the northern part of its range, the coat becomes pure white in winter. Eighteen subspecies are recognised. Small rodents form the largest part of the least weasel's diet, but it kills and eats rabbits, other mammals, birds, birds' eggs and frogs.
Males mark their territories with olfactory signals and have exclusive home ranges which may intersect with or include several female ranges. Least weasels use pre-existing holes to store food and raise their young. Breeding takes place in the spring and summer, there is a single litter of about six kits which are reared by the female. Due to its small size and fierce nature, the least weasel plays an important part in the mythology and legend of various cultures; the least weasel was given its scientific name Mustela nivalis by Carl Linnaeus in his 12th edition of Systema Naturae in 1766. The type locality was Västerbotten in Sweden; as an animal with a wide distribution, the morphology of the least weasel varies geographically. The species was reviewed by Reichstein in 1957 and again by van Zyll de Jong in 1992 and Reig in 1997. Youngman placed it in the subgenus Mustela while Abramov considered it should be included in the subgenus Gale. Based on skull characteristics, Reig proposed that the taxon should be split into four species, M. subpalmata, M. rixosa, M. vulgaris and M. eskimo.
Abrimov and Baryshinikov disagreed. Within the genus Mustela, the least weasel is a unspecialised form, as evidenced by its pedomorphic skull, which occurs in large subspecies, its direct ancestor was Mustela praenivalis, which lived in Europe during the Middle Pleistocene and Villafranchian. M. praenivalis itself was preceded by M. pliocaenica of the Pliocene. The modern species arose during the Late Pleistocene; the least weasel is the product of a process begun 5–7 million years ago, when northern forests were replaced by open grassland, thus prompting an explosive evolution of small, burrowing rodents. The weasel's ancestors were larger than the current form, underwent a reduction in size to exploit the new food source; the least weasel thrived during the Ice Age, as its small size and long body allowed it to operate beneath snow, as well as hunt in burrows. It crossed to North America through the Bering land bridge 200,000 years ago; the least weasel has a high geographic variation, a fact which has led to numerous disagreements among biologists studying its systematics.
The least weasel's subspecies are divided into three categories: The pygmaea–rixosa group: Tiny weasels with short tails, pedomorphic skulls, pelts that turn pure white in winter. They inhabit northern European Russia, the Russian Far East, the northern Scandinavian Peninsula, northeastern China and North America; the boccamela group: Very large weasels with large skulls long tails and lighter coloured pelts. Locally, they either do not turn white or only change colour in winter, they inhabit Transcaucasia, from western Kazakhstan to Semirechye and in the flat deserts of Middle Asia. They are found in Morocco and Tunisia; the nivalis group: Medium-sized weasels, with tails of moderate length, representing a transitional form between the former two groups. They inhabit the middle and southern regions of European Russia, the Ciscaucasus, western Kazakhstan, the southern and middle Urals and the montane parts of Middle Asia, save for Koppet Dag; the least weasel has a thin elongated and flexible body with a small, yet elongated, blunt-muzzled head, no thicker than the neck.
The eyes are bulging and dark colored. The legs and tail are short, the latter constituting less than half the body length; the feet have sharp, dark-coloured claws, the soles are haired. The skull that of the small rixosa group, has an infantile appearance when compared with that of other members of the genus Mustela; this is expressed in the large size of the cranium and shortened facial region. The skull is, similar to that of the stoat, but smaller, though the skulls of large male weasels tend to overlap in size with those of small female stoats. There are four pairs of nipples but these are only visible in females; the baculum is 16 to 20 mm, with a thick, straight shaft. Fat is deposited along the spine, gut mesentries and around the limbs; the least weasel has muscular anal glands under the tail, which measure 7 by 5 mm, contain sulphurous volatiles, including t
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