Least weasel in England
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Mustelidae
Subfamily: Mustelinae
Genus: Mustela
Linnaeus, 1758
Type species
Mustela erminea
Mustela range

Weasels /ˈwzəlz/ are mammals of the genus Mustela of the family Mustelidae. The genus Mustela includes the least weasels, polecats, stoats, ferrets, and European mink. Members of this genus are small, active predators, with long and slender bodies and short legs. The family Mustelidae, or mustelids (which also includes badgers, otters, and wolverines), is often referred to as the "weasel family". In the UK, the term "weasel" usually refers to the smallest species, the least weasel (M. nivalis),[1] the smallest carnivoran species.[2]

Least weasels vary in length from 173 to 217 mm (6+34 to 8+12 in),[3] females being smaller than the males, and usually have red or brown upper coats and white bellies; some populations of some species moult to a wholly white coat in winter. They have long, slender bodies, which enable them to follow their prey into burrows. Their tails may be from 34 to 52 mm (1+14 to 2 in) long.[3]

Weasels feed on small mammals and have from time to time been considered vermin because some species took poultry from farms or rabbits from commercial warrens. They do, on the other hand, eat large numbers of rodents. Their range spans Europe, North America, much of Asia and South America, and small areas in North Africa.


The English word "weasel" was originally applied to one species of the genus, the European form of the least weasel (Mustela nivalis). This usage is retained in British English, where the name is also extended to cover several other small species of the genus. However, in technical discourse and in American usage, the term "weasel" can refer to any member of the genus, or to the genus as a whole. Of the 16 extant species currently classified in the genus Mustela, 10 have "weasel" in their common names. Among those that do not are the three species of ermine,[* 1] the polecats, the ferret, and the European mink.[4]: 12 

The American mink and the extinct sea mink were commonly included in this genus as Mustela vison and Mustela macrodon, respectively, but in 1999 they were moved to the genus Neovison.[5] In 2021, both Neovison species, along with the long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata), Amazon weasel (Mustela africana) and Colombian weasel (Mustela felipei) were moved to the genus Neogale, as the clade containing these five species was found to be fully distinct from Mustela.[6]


The genus name Mustela comes from the Latin word for weasel combining the words mus meaning "mouse" and telum meaning "javelin" for its long body.[4]: 3 


The following information is according to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System and MammalDiversity.

Image Scientific name Common name Distribution
Mustela altaica Pallas, 1811 Mountain weasel Northern and Southern Asia
Mustela lutreolina Robinson and Thomas, 1917 Indonesian mountain weasel Southern Asia
Mustela erminea Linnaeus, 1758 Stoat, Beringian ermine, Eurasian ermine, or
short-tailed weasel
Europe and Northern Asia
Arctic Canada and Alaska (United States)
Southern Asia (non-native)
New Zealand (non-native)
Mustela nivalis Linnaeus, 1766 Least weasel Europe, North Africa and Northern Asia
North America
Southern Asia (non-native)
New Zealand (non-native)
Mustela aistoodonnivalis Wu & Kao, 1991 Missing-toothed pygmy weasel Shaanxi and Sichuan, China
Mustela richardsonii Bonaparte, 1838 American ermine Most of North America south of Alaska and the Arctic Circle; eastern Nunavut and Baffin Island
Mustela haidarum Preble, 1898 Haida ermine Haida Gwaii (British Columbia, Canada) and Alexander Archipelago (Alaska, United States)
Mustela eversmanii (Lesson, 1827) Steppe polecat Southeast Europe and Northern Asia
Southern Asia
Mustela furo Linnaeus, 1758 Domestic ferret Domestic

Worldwide (domesticated); New Zealand (non-native)

Mustela putorius Linnaeus, 1758 European polecat Europe, North Africa and Northern Asia
Mustela itatsi Temminck, 1844 Japanese weasel Japan and formerly Sakhalin Island, Russia
Mustela sibirica Pallas, 1773 Siberian weasel Europe and Northern Asia
Southern Asia
Mustela kathiah Hodgson, 1835 Yellow-bellied weasel Southern Asia
Mustela lutreola (Linnaeus, 1761) European mink Europe
Mustela nigripes (Audubon and Bachman, 1851) Black-footed ferret North America
Mustela nudipes Desmarest, 1822 Malayan weasel Southern Asia
Mustela strigidorsa Gray, 1855 Back-striped weasel Southern Asia

1 Europe and Northern Asia division excludes China.

Cultural meanings

Main article: Cultural depictions of weasels

Weasels have been assigned a variety of cultural meanings.

In Greek culture, a weasel near one's house is a sign of bad luck, even evil, "especially if there is in the household a girl about to be married", since the animal (based on its Greek etymology) was thought to be an unhappy bride who was transformed into a weasel[7] and consequently delights in destroying wedding dresses.[8] In Macedonia, however, weasels are generally seen as an omen of good fortune.[7][8]

In early-modern Mecklenburg, Germany, amulets from weasels were deemed to have strong magic; the period between 15 August and 8 September was specifically designated for the killing of weasels.[9]: 255 

In Montagne Noire (France), Ruthenia, and the early medieval culture of the Wends, weasels were not meant to be killed.[9]

According to Daniel Defoe also, meeting a weasel is a bad omen.[10] In English-speaking areas, weasel can be an insult, noun or verb, for someone regarded as sneaky, conniving or untrustworthy. Similarly, "weasel words" is a critical term for words or phrasing that are vague, misleading or equivocal.

Japanese superstitions

"Ten" from the Gazu Hyakki Yagyō by Sekien Toriyama
Japanese weasel

In Japan, weasels (鼬、鼬鼠, itachi) were seen as yōkai (causing strange occurrences). According to the encyclopedia Wakan Sansai Zue from the Edo period, a pack of weasels would cause conflagrations, and the cry of a weasel was considered a harbinger of misfortune. In the Niigata Prefecture, the sound of a pack of weasels making a rustle resembled six people hulling rice, so was called the "weasel's six-person mortar", and it was an omen for one's home to decline or flourish. It is said that when people chase after this sound, the sound stops.[11]

They are also said to shapeshift like the fox (kitsune) or tanuki, and the nyūdō-bōzu told about in legends in the Tōhoku region and the Chūbu region are considered weasels in disguise, and they are also said to shapeshift into ōnyūdō and little monks.[11]

In the collection of depictions Gazu Hyakki Yagyō by Sekien Toriyama, they were depicted under the title 鼬, but they were read not as "itachi", but rather as "ten",[12] and "ten" were considered to be weasels that have reached one hundred years of age and became yōkai that possessed supernatural powers.[13] Another theory is that when weasels reach several hundred years of age, they become mujina (Japanese badgers).[14]

In Japanese, weasels are called iizuna or izuna (飯綱) and in the Tōhoku Region and Shinshu, it was believed that there were families that were able to use a certain practice to freely use kudagitsune as iizuna-tsukai or kitsune-mochi. It is said that Mount Iizuna, from the Nagano Prefecture, got its name due to how the gods gave people mastery of this technique from there.[15]

According to the folklorist Mutō Tetsujō, "They are called izuna in the Senboku District,[* 2] Akita Prefecture, and there are also the ichiko (itako) that use them."[16] Also, in the Kitaakita District, they are called mōsuke (猛助), and they are feared as yōkai even more than foxes (kitsune).[16]

In the Ainu language, ermines are called upas-čironnup or sáčiri, but since least weasels are also called sáčiri, Mashio Chiri surmised that the honorary title poy-sáčiri-kamuy (where poy means "small") refers to least weasels.[17]


Main article: Kamaitachi

Kamaitachi is a phenomenon wherein one who is idle is suddenly injured as if his or her skin were cut by a scythe. In the past, this was thought to be "the deed of an invisible yōkai weasel". An alternate theory, asserts that kamaitachi is derived from kamae Tachi (構え太刀, "stance sword"), so were not originally related to weasels at all.[18]

See also


  1. ^ These three species are Mustela erminea, (the Eurasian ermine or stoat); M. haidarum, (the Haida ermine); and M. richardsonii, (the American ermine).
  2. ^ However, in the Senboku District, especially in Obonai village (生保内村), they are called okojo.[16]


  1. ^ Shorter Oxford English dictionary. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press. 2007. p. 3804. ISBN 978-0199206872.
  2. ^ Valkenburgh, Blaire Van; Wayne, Robert K. (9 November 2010). "Carnivores". Current Biology. 20 (21): R915–R919. Bibcode:2010CBio...20.R915V. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2010.09.013. ISSN 0960-9822. PMID 21056828. S2CID 235312150.
  3. ^ a b "The Weasel". The Mammal Society. Retrieved 11 April 2017.
  4. ^ a b King, Carolyn M.; Powell, Roger A. (2006). The Natural History of Weasels and Stoats: Ecology, Behavior, and Management. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-804113-9.
  5. ^ Abramov, A.V. 1999. A taxonomic review of the genus Mustela (Mammalia, Carnivora). Zoosystematica Rossica, 8(2): 357-364
  6. ^ Patterson, Bruce D.; Ramírez-Chaves, Héctor E.; Vilela, Júlio F.; Soares, André E. R.; Grewe, Felix (2021). "On the nomenclature of the American clade of weasels (Carnivora: Mustelidae)". Journal of Animal Diversity. 3 (2): 1–8. doi:10.52547/JAD.2021.3.2.1. ISSN 2676-685X. S2CID 236299740.
  7. ^ a b Lawson, John Cuthbert (2012). Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion: A Study in Survivals. Cambridge UP. pp. 327–28. ISBN 978-1-107-67703-6.
  8. ^ a b Abbott, George Frederick (1903). Macedonian folklore. Cambridge UP. pp. 108–109. Retrieved 13 February 2012.
  9. ^ a b Thomas, N.W. (September 1900). "Animal Superstitions and Totemism". Folk-lore. 11 (3): 228–67. doi:10.1080/0015587X.1900.9719953. JSTOR 1253113.
  10. ^ Hazlitt, William Carew; Brand, John (1905). Faiths and folklore: a dictionary of national beliefs, superstitions and popular customs, past and current, with their classical and foreign analogues, described and illustrated. Reeves and Turner. p. 622. Retrieved 13 February 2012.
  11. ^ a b 村上健司編著 『妖怪事典』 毎日新聞社、2000年、36頁。ISBN 978-4-6203-1428-0
  12. ^ 高田衛監修 稲田篤信・田中直日編 『鳥山石燕 画図百鬼夜行』 国書刊行会、1992年、50頁。ISBN 978-4-336-03386-4
  13. ^ 少年社・中村友紀夫・武田えり子編 『妖怪の本 異界の闇に蠢く百鬼夜行の伝説』 学習研究社〈New sight mook〉、1999年、123頁。ISBN 978-4-05-602048-9
  14. ^ 草野巧 『幻想動物事典』 新紀元社、1997年、30頁。ISBN 978-4-88317-283-2
  15. ^ 『広辞苑 第4版』(1991年)、岩波書店「いづなつかい【飯綱使・飯縄遣】」の項
  16. ^ a b c 武藤, 鉄城 (1940), "秋田郡邑魚譚", アチックミユーゼアム彙報, 45: 41–42, 北秋田ではモウスケと称して狐より怖がられ、仙北地方ではイヅナと称し、それを使う巫女(エチコ)もある。学名コエゾイタチを、此の付近..〔生保内村〕では..オコジョと云ふ(田口耕之助氏)
  17. ^ 知里, 真志保 (Chiri, Mashiho) (30 March 1959), "アイヌ語獣名集 (On the names of the mammals of the Ainu language)" (PDF), 北海道大學文學部紀要 = the Annual Reports on Cultural Science: 141, ISSN 0437-6668, archived (PDF) from the original on 9 October 2022((citation)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  18. ^ 人文社編集部 (2005). 諸国怪談奇談集成 江戸諸国百物語 東日本編. ものしりシリーズ. 人文社. p. 104. ISBN 978-4-7959-1955-6.

Further reading