Many prairie species are uniquely adapted to life on the snowy plains, but the Least weasel (Mustela nivalis) completely commits to its cold weather camouflage. As autumn comes to an end, this mini carnivore sheds its dark fur for a solid white coat that helps it evade predators like hawks and owls hovering overhead. And the Least weasel’s winter strategy doesn’t stop with color. They are also known to breed in their shallow burrows under the snow and cache extra food to get through the season.
Like other members of the Mustelid family, including badgers, black-footed ferrets, and wolverines, the Least weasel doesn’t let its size (or name!) determine its attitude. They are fierce attackers of much larger animals despite weighing in at just a few ounces and measuring less than 10 inches in length. Some historians believe that the weasel reputation for bravery is why Plains Indians like the Shoshone, Blackfeet and Arapaho incorporated white weasel pelts into tribal fashion, war bonnets, and weapons. Of course, the beauty of the winter white fur was also a luxury that made pelts a popular trade item. Sacajawea even gifted two-dozen white weasel tails to William Clark for Christmas.
Photo by Dennis Lingohr