It is called a snow mouse in Norway. The Inuits credited it with great wisdom and courage. Secretive and seldom seen, the least weasel is our smallest true carnivore.
Weighing in at a couple ounces and only six or eight inches long, they don't seem like they could handle much more than a good-sized tundra vole. However, hunting is their life and they own no fear --animals four or five times their size are fair game.
My first encounter with a least weasel was when I was nine or 10. I had a live trap set for mice near our chicken coop. The morning check found a dead weasel in with the mice. He was half the size of any ermine I had ever caught on my trap line and had no black tip on his tail. I hurried with him to the house, but Dad couldn't tell me much about him. I found little in my mammal book either (remember, this is 40 years ago).
I was a budding taxidermist, so I carefully skinned and mounted him. In the process I discovered he was a she. I had that mount for about 30 years. I think one of my dogs finally ate it.
The females are tinier than the males. Some barely weigh an ounce. Their smaller size allows them to hunt differently than males, accessing smaller holes. They are also less vulnerable to predation from other larger weasel species for the same reason.
Predation accounts for most of these small animals' mortality. In Alaska, horned owls, red fox and marten all eat weasels. Interestingly, they may be more susceptible because of the lack of a black tip, or "predator deflection mark," on their tail.
A huge percentage of the young die before adulthood. Seldom does an adult live beyond three years, though in captivity some may survive 10.
Young are born in early summer after a gestation period of just over a month. The young are born blind, deaf and hairless. That grow quickly and are weaned in three weeks. They are hunting at eight weeks, usually in a gang with their mother. (Good thing they aren't the size of wolves.) That is the last time you ever get a chance to see them in a group, because by 10 weeks they are on their own and quite solitary.
Least weasels are found over most of the world, though they avoid sandy deserts and heavy forests. Their preferred habitat is the margin of timberline and open tundra.
Though a very common predator, we seldom see them. Much of their hunting is done underground or under the snow. Occasionally we get to see a tiny white streak dash across the road in the headlights. They are not truly nocturnal, though they are certainly more active at night.
These tiny carnivores eat a third of the their body weight every 24 hours, so they are constantly on the move. Their heart rate is between 300 to 400 beats per minute.
They will kill far more than they can eat. They cache the excess, but rarely return to eat it. True hunters, they want it fresh. Voles and mice are the preferred prey. They seldom take birds or eggs, but personally I doubt they pass up any easy meals. Young rabbits are a favorite target in the spring and some berries are utilized in season.
I watched one eating frozen blueberries late one fall. He seemed to make a face every time he pulled a berry from the bush. We had little snow that fall and voles were scarce, so the berries were likely a necessity rather than a choice.
The low snow cover this season and the relatively hard freezes are again going to make things difficult for our smallest predators. I have seen several this fall crossing highway and one has moved into a vacant cabin at our summer business.
Least weasels seem more curious and calmer than the larger weasel species. S eldom do they challenge; rather, they investigate and continue on their way. I welcome them because when they move in, I can put the mouse traps away for the season.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Paxson and commercial fishes in Bristol Bay. He is a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest sled-dog race.