This weeks animal may take the top spot for the cutest creature ever covered on the podcast! The Marbled Polecat is a member of the much-loved Mustelid species, belonging to the subfamily Ictonychinae, which it shares with weasels, grisons, Patagonian weasels, striped polecats, and African striped weasels. It is their mottled fur that gives them their name and makes them stand out amongst the group, although they are the least studied member of the family. They can be found in the drier areas, like open or semi desert and steppes, from Southeastern Europe to Western China, and are also known to frequent cultivated vegetable fields in Israel.
Recently, marbled polecats have become furry celebrities on social media, where there are multiple videos of them interacting with Ukrainian soldiers in trenches during the ongoing Ukrainian-Russian war.
Cute but not always cuddly: the behaviour and ecology of the Marbled Polecat
Although they may look cute, marbled polecats can have quite the attitude when they need to. When they feel threatened, they will stand up on their hind legs and arch their back, puffing up their fur. They will also hiss and emit shrill alarm calls and like many other mustelids, can excrete a foul-smelling odour from their enlarged anal glands. They live solitary lives and will get aggressive on encountering another polecat.
Marbled polecats will excavate burrows with their powerful forelegs and use their small but tough teeth to remove obstacles like roots or branches. At times, they are known to use the burrows of other species, like great gerbils, to rest and breed. They are diet generalists, and will hunt and eat everything from ground squirrels, hamsters, voles, mole rats, house mice, lizards, fish and frogs, and are known to occasionally take domestic poultry. They have even been reported sneaking into smoke houses and stealing smoked meats and cheeses.
Conservation in conflict: the future of the Marbled Polecats
Currently, the IUCN lists the Marbled Polecat as vulnerable. However, the current conflict in Russia and Ukraine may seriously affect the future of the polecats. War and conflict and the chaos this brings can seriously decimate animal populations, and it can take a long time before these effects are noticed by conservationists and researchers. Time will tell how this dreadful war will affect the wildlife of Russia and Ukraine, including the Polecats.
Aside from the current conflict, Marbled Polecats have suffered from the loss of the steppes, the huge grasslands that they rely on for their habitat. This is largely due to increasing land use change for agriculture, and although the marbled polecats do occur in some protected areas, there is still a massive need to protect the remaining steppe habitat. Although their populations are relatively stable at the moment, their prey species are declining, in Europe especially. There are also some worries that such cute animals could be brought into the pet trade, when they certainly would not make good pets, in case anyone was tempeted!
Although they aren’t particularly a species of conservation focus, they are listed under appendix two of the Bern convention, which is the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife, which was set up in 1979 in Switzerland to legally protect wildlife on throughout Europe. In Ukraine particularly, The Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group are a not for profit that works to establish protected areas, monitor biodiversity and promote sustainability for the people and wildlife of Ukraine. Their work has been seriously impacted by the conflict in the region, but they are still actively working to protect wildlife in the region, including the marbled polecat. Check out the wonderful work they do at : Home – Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group (uncg.org.ua)
Ben-David, M. Pellis, S.M. and Pellis, V.C. (1991) ‘Feeding habits and predatory behaviour in the marbled polecat, killing methods in relation to prey size and prey behaviour.’ Behaviour
Dulamtseren, s. Dashzeveg, G. and Togtohkbayar, D. (1999) ‘New distribution data for Marbled Polecats.’ Proceedings of the Institute of General and Experimental Biology of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences
MASSIVE THANK YOU TO RACHAEL DA SILVA FROM THE UK FOR THIS WRITE UP! PLEASE FOLLOW HER ON INSTAGRAM AND HER WILDLIFE ARTWORK AT TILLY_MINT08