Do you remember the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. I know, it’s hard to forget. But think hard. Do you remember when there was a big outcry about Covid-19 and mink farms? If you can’t recall, basically there was an outbreak of Covid-19 jumping from humans to mink and back to humans again. So Denmark decided to destroy all mink on farms. They culled 17 million of them in November 2020.
And then the buried mink started rising out of their graves, due to the gas released from their decomposition.
And then Denmark exhumed millions of mink because a) they were rising from their grave like zombies and b) people worried they could pollute the drinking water.
What a sad, tragic, and weird story.
But on to brighter topics! I started thinking about these mink. And I thought to myself, what exactly is a mink? I looked them up and immediately got distracted because MINK ARE SO CUTE. Luckily for you, I was able to focus enough to bring you some facts about mink and, more specifically, the European mink (Mustela lutreola). These cuties are pretty cool!
- European mink are mustelids. The family Mustelidae is huge, comprising of 66 – 70 species including weasels, badgers, otters, ferrets, martens, and wolverines. Because the family is so large, there is a lot of diversity. But, in general, mustelids are carnivorous mammals that typically have long bodies, short legs, small, round ears, and thick fur. They also have anal scent glands. These aren’t uncommon; many species of carnivores (cats, dogs, bears) have anal scent glands that they use for marking territory and sexual signaling. But according to Fur Commission USA, weasels typically have highly developed anal scent glands, and mink can spray with these glands like a skunk.
- American vs. European
- There are currently two species of mustelids that are called mink: the American mink and the European mink. European mink are generally smaller than American mink and always have a white patch on their upper lip. As you may have guessed, these two species also differ in their place of origin. American mink are native to North America; European mink are native to Europe. Unfortunately, the American mink was introduced to Europe in the 1920s after escaping from fur farms and started taking over. American mink are simply outcompeting the European mink: they are larger, more aggressive, and reproduce a month earlier. As scientists try to reintroduce European mink to their native habitat, they sometimes need to kill the American mink to get the European mink to thrive.
- European mink can hybridize with European polecats, another mustelid. Hybridization is when two different species breed and produce offspring together. Think ligers, tigons, etc. These mink-polecat hybrids look like what you would expect: a cross between the two. Mink-polecat hybrids are also pretty rare. One study put the possibility as less than 3%, and they seem to happen in areas where there is are few European minks around.
- European mink depend on fresh water. They live on the banks of rivers and streams, hunting for amphibians, crayfish, insects, birds, and small mammals like voles. According to National Geographic, they are almost always found within 100 meters of fresh water. They will make dens in the thick vegetation on the riverbeds. Interestingly, European mink do not have a tail adapted for swimming like other semi-aquatic mammals do (i.e., beavers and otters). However, they do have partially-webbed feet to help them swim.
- The importance of clucks
- Scientists are trying to conserve European mink by breeding them in captivity to be released into the wild. Unfortunately, one study of breeding attempts in captivity found that only 25% resulted in copulation. That’s…not a great track record. A 2018 study tried to address the low copulation rates by studying what made European mink courtship successful. They found that male “clucking” behavior was necessary for eventual copulation: mating attempts with no clucking never ending in copulation. The authors suggest that this clucking vocalization by the male is a key part of European mink courtship behavior.
- As I said before, European mink are semi-aquatic, and they live by rivers and streams. In order to stay warm and dry, they have a specific fur coat made of guard hairs and underfur hairs. Guard hairs are the long, outer hairs on a mink’s coat that work to keep the mink dry. Each guard hair is then surrounded by underfur hairs that help insulate the mink from the cold.
- I would be remiss talking about European mink fur without mentioning the fur trade. Mink fur is apparently lustrous and lovely to make clothes out of. Although American mink was preferred for clothing (their fur is thicker and warmer), European mink was also hunted for their pelts. Today, it’s illegal to hunt European mink, and people instead rely on domesticated mink fur farms. Another option would be to, you know, not wear furs at all.
- Critically endangered
- European mink have had a rough time. While they used to be found all over Europe, they are currently found only in a few isolated spots in northern Spain / southwestern France, the Danube delta in Romania and Ukraine, and parts of Russia. This is less than 20% of their former range, and the European mink is considered by some the rarest terrestrial carnivore in Europe. How did it end up like this? We can point to a lot of the usual suspects: habitat loss and pollution, as well as overhunting driven by a desire for their fur. The introduction of the invasive American mink further pushed their population to the edge. In a fight between American and European mink, the American always wins.
European mink: cute, adorable, and endangered. And it’s our fault (as usual). As we try to rescue the European mink, we can learn from our mistakes and try to protect other animals. For example: be careful when bringing new species to a continent because they might escape and outcompete the local wildlife. It will save us a lot of trouble in the future.