The Color-Changing Stoat
By Sara Thompson
Special to the Enterprise
Several species of bird and mammal change their color with the seasons, one of them being the short-tailed weasel. Also known as a stoat, they are found naturally in upper latitudes of North America, Europe, and Asia. Their habitat is primarily the wooded and grassy areas in colder regions but have also been found in some coastal regions. Living in places with seasonal changes, the stoat goes through a dramatic makeover in order to survive.
Male stoats can reach lengths over a foot and weigh little more than half a pound, females tend to be around 25% smaller in size. Despite their small size, they are a fierce predator, hunting and feeding on small rodents and birds, and occasionally taking down rabbits which are much bigger. Stoats live in small dens and nests, but do not build their own, but instead live in the ones made by their prey.
While many other small mammals will hibernate during the winter, the stoat remains active. To contend with the changing landscape with seasonal changes, the color of the stoat coat also changes. In the spring and summertime their coat is dark on their heads, backs, and tails, but white on their belly. Their summer coat can range in color from gray to brown, even black in some rare cases. No matter what their summer coat color is, it will begin to change in the autumn months into a fully white coat, except around their eyes and the tip if their tail, which remain dark in color. Many of the animals that change their coat color is to help evade predators, but the stoat uses it to blend into the snowy landscape to help their hunting. The black tip of their tail is what confuses their predators. If a bird of prey or a fox is hunting, they will target the black tail tip, but since it is the very tip of their tail, the stoat can quickly move and escape.
The fur of the stoat will again change in spring. The spring molt is slower than the autumn, and begins around the animal’s ears, progresses across the back and down towards the belly. Both coat changes are initiated by changes in daylight. It has been noted that the color change is still happening, even with lighter snowfalls each winter, meaning the stoat is less camouflaged. This could make the animal’s survival more difficult as our weather and climate continues to change.
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