In detail

From polecat to ferret: domestication of martens


Polecat and ferret are related to each other like wolf and dog or falcon cat and domestic cat. This means that the polecats are the wild form and ferrets are the domesticated pet form of the same animal species. The small predators from the marten family were probably domesticated around 2,500 years ago in order to use them for hunting. The similarity between polecat and ferret is unmistakable with this journeyman - Shutterstock / Philip Bird LRPS CPAGB

Ferrets were and are used primarily for hunting wild rabbits. The domesticated polecat easily crawls into the rabbit hole and chases the animals out so that hunters can kill them outside or catch them with nets or hawks. However, the martens were also able to serve as pest control for mice and rats long before they became pure domestic animals.

Polecat as an ancestor of ferrets

There are three types of polecats: the European polecat, also known as the forest polecat, the steppe polecat and the black-footed polecat. It is not entirely clear whether the ferret descends from Waldiltis or Steppeniltis - both are possible. The steppe niltis is slightly larger and lighter than the European polecat and occurs in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Manchuria. European polecats can also be found further west; As the name suggests, their habitat extends across Europe, with the exception of Ireland and parts of Scandinavia. The Russian Ural Mountains represent roughly the limit of the habitat. In addition, the polecats were introduced in New Zealand.

In ancient Greece, polecats are said to have been tamed and used for hunting. Around 2,500 years ago, Aristophanes mentioned ferrets in his comedy "Die Acharner" and Aristotle also described ferret hunting. In the first century AD, according to Pliny, the small predators helped the elder to fight the rabbit infestation.

The theologian and naturalist Thomas von Cantipré described the animal species in detail in the 13th century and pictorial representations of a ferret hunt appeared in the 14th century. Nowadays, this form of hunting is no longer very widespread. Ferrets are mostly kept as pets; the clever raccoon animals are easy to tame and, if kept appropriately, are lovable companions who can also walk on a leash, for example. The NABU points out that ferret owners have to be careful that the animals do not break out, otherwise they could mix with the wild polecat, which is not desirable for reasons of species conservation and conservation.

Differences between polecats and ferrets?

In the wilderness, both the steppe iltis and the forest iltis mostly live on the ground and hardly or not climb at all. Ferrets, on the other hand, love to have climbing opportunities in their enclosure. What the wild and tamed polecats have in common, however, is their preference for sophisticated hiding places. In addition to self-digging, European polecats also prefer crevices, abandoned rabbit holes, wall niches and cracks in the building, as well as hollow tree trunks. The Steppeniltis digs the dwellings of its prey - ground squirrels, hamsters and whistles - and takes them out to eat them and to nest in their burrows. Ferrets like to crawl wherever they can.

Waldiltisse can swim and dive well, they like to eat amphibians, fish, snakes, but also rodents, rabbits, birds and eggs. The ferret diet is similar in that it is also very meat-heavy and requires a lot of animal proteins. However, amphibians or snakes are usually not on their menu. Ferret males are up to 60 centimeters tall (including tail) and up to around 2,000 grams in weight, the ferrets (ferret females) up to 40 centimeters long and 850 grams. Their wild relatives also have this significant difference in size between the sexes, but are somewhat smaller overall - the Steppeniltis male can be up to 56 centimeters long and the Waldiltis male up to 46 centimeters long. Waldiltisse are twilight and nocturnal, while ferrets, like domestic cats, can adapt to their people's daily rhythms.

Other relatives of polecat and ferret

Polecats and ferrets belong to the genus Mustela from the marten family. In addition to the polecats, weasels and mink are also part of the Mustela genus. The marten family also includes badgers, otters and, of course, real martens. One step above the marten family is classified in the group of marten relatives - small pandas, skunks or skunks and small bears (for example the raccoon) are their cousins. The sister group of marten relatives includes all seals, including dog seals, ear seals and walruses.

The superfamily of seals and marten relatives are the dog-like, which together with the cat-like form the order of the predators. In this respect, Iltisse are related to dogs including our domestic dog, wolves and foxes as well as the bears including the giant panda.