The late-April morning air is cold but at least the ground is free from snow, I think, as I walk briskly along a mowed path traversing through a valley bottom prairie. Winter has been slow to let go, and a couple of April snow storms have delayed my best intentions of getting an early start on spring garlic mustard control efforts. Bits of green are visible among the cool-season grass blades in the path, but the neighboring bleached prairie grasses and the shriveled, dried prairie flowers appear to be holding out for warmer weather. I spot a small, dark-chocolate form laying on the path ahead of me. Bummer, I mutter to myself.
It’s a dead weasel. Apparently a victim to a larger predator that did not care for the taste of weasel. A touch of sadness sweeps over me as I consider the weasel’s fate: It made it through the hardships of winter only to meet its demise at the dawn of spring’s bounty. Perhaps though, the weasel thinks otherwise. Maybe, living life under the snow, cloaked in a white coat, chasing mice and voles and hidden from predators above is utopia in weasel world.
What species of weasel are you? I take a closer look. There are three possibilities in Wisconsin – least, short-tail and long-tail. Given the weasel’s size and the low-lying grassland habitat, I immediately jump to the conclusion this little guy is a least weasel – the smallest carnivore in the world. But almost as quickly I doubt my conclusion when I see the black hairs on the tip of his tail. I have seen several least weasels, but I don’t ever recall seeing one with black hairs on the tip of its tail.
A long-tail weasel is out because they are much larger. But this can’t be a short-tail weasel, I think. Yes, short-tail weasels have black tail tips but they trend larger in size in both body and tail length than the least weasels, and prefer forested habitat. Hmm, I ponder, I’m headed to spray garlic mustard in a nearby large tract of woods, maybe this guy was killed in the woods and dropped in this location by another predator? Maybe it’s trending on the smaller size for a short-tail weasel? Simple, I think, I’ll settle this later by the ultimate authority– the Internet.
Not surprisingly, the Internet did not help much, although I did find a reference that least weasels can have a few black hairs on the tip of their tails. I knew it, this is a least weasel. But, just how many black hairs constitutes a few?
I try another approach. I send an email to Richard Staffen, Zoologist/Conservation Biologist at the Wisconsin DNR, with the weasel’s measurements (about 6.5 inches in length from nose tip to tail tip, tail length is about 1.3 inches), a description of the habitat, and a picture.
Richard replies “Yes, this is definitely a least weasel based on the measurements you provided. Least weasels can have a few black hairs on the tip of their tails and I believe that is what the case is here. Because the tail is so short (1-1.5”) it is most surely a least weasel. The short-tailed would have a tail length of 2-4”.”
Mystery settled, and I learned something new – always a good thing.
The least weasel is an at-risk species (special concern) in Wisconsin, according to the state DNR. Special concern species include critters with suspected – but not yet proven - problems of abundance or distribution. The main purpose of this category is to focus attention on certain species before they become threatened or endangered.
Yes, it’s a bummer that this least weasel is no more, but there are surely others in this valley bottom prairie planted 10 years ago. It’s another testimony that ecological restoration is instrumental in slowing the slide to extinction of at-risk species.