European mink

European mink
European mink
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Mustelidae
Genus: Mustela
Species: M. lutreola
Binomial name
Mustela lutreola
(Linnaeus, 1761)
European mink range
(brown - extant, red - introduced, orange - possibly extinct)

The European mink (Mustela lutreola), also known as the Russian mink, is a semi-aquatic species of Mustelid native to Europe. It is listed by the IUCN as Endangered due to an ongoing reduction in numbers, having been calculated as being more than 50% over the past three generations.[1] European mink numbers began to shrink during the 19th century, with the species rapidly becoming extinct in some parts of Central Europe. During the 20th century, mink numbers declined all throughout their range, the reason for which having been hypothesised to be due to a combination of factors, including climate change, competition with (as well as diseases spread by) the introduced American mink, habitat destruction, declines in crayfish numbers and hybridisation with the European polecat. In Central Europe and Finland, the decline preceded the introduction of the American mink, having likely been due to the destruction of river ecosystems, while in Estonia, the decline seems to coincide with the spread of the American mink.[2]

It is similar in colour to the American mink, but is slightly smaller and has a less specialised skull.[3] Despite having a similar name, build and behaviour, the European mink is not closely related to the American mink, being much closer to the European polecat and kolonok.[4][5] The European mink occurs primarily by forest streams unlikely to freeze in winter.[6] It primarily feeds on voles, frogs, fish, crustaceans and insects.[7]


Evolution and taxonomy

Fossil finds of the European mink are very rare, thus indicating that the species is either a relative newcomer to Europe, probably having originated in North America,[8] or a recent speciation caused by hybridization. It likely first arose in the Middle Pleistocene, with several fossils in Europe dated to the Late Pleistocene being found in caves and some suggesting early exploitation by humans. Genetic analyses indicate that, rather than being closely related to the American mink, the European mink's closest relative is the European polecat (perhaps due to past hybridization)[4] and the kolonok,[5] being intermediate in form between true polecats and other members of the genus. The closeness between the mink and polecat is emphasized by the fact that both species can hybridize.[9][10][11]


As of 2005,[12] seven subspecies are recognised.

Physical description


Skull, as illustrated in Miller's Catalogue of the mammals of Western Europe (Europe exclusive of Russia) in the collection of the British Museum

The European mink is a typical representative of the genus Mustela, having a greatly elongated body with short limbs. However, compared to its close relative, the kolonok, the mink is more compact and less thinly built, thus approaching ferrets and European polecats in build. The European mink has a large, broad head with short ears. The limbs are short, with relatively well developed membranes between the digits, particularly on the hind feet. The mink's tail is short, and does not exceed half the animal's body length (constituting about 40% of its length).[17] The European mink's skull is less elongated than the kolonok's, with more widely spaced zygomatic arches and has a less massive facial region. In general characteristics, the skull is intermediate in shape between that of the kolonok's and the European polecat's. Overall, the skull is less specialised for carnivory than that of polecats and the American mink. Males measure 373-430 mm in body length, while females measure 352-400 mm. Tail length is 153-190 mm in males and 150-180 mm.[18] Overall weight is 550-800 grams.[9] It is a fast and agile animal, which swims and dives skillfully. It is able to run along stream beds, and stay underwater for 1-2 minutes.[19] When swimming, it paddles with both its front and back limbs simultaneously.[6]


European mink face. Note the white markings on the upper lip, which are absent in the American species

The winter fur of the European mink is very thick and dense, but not long, and quite loosely fitting. The underfur is particularly dense compared with that of more land-based members of the genus Mustela. The guard hairs are quite coarse and lustrous, with very wide contour hairs which are flat in the middle, as is typical in aquatic mammals. There is little difference in length between the hairs on the back and belly, a further adaptation to the European mink's semi-aquatic way of life. The summer fur is somewhat shorter, coarser and less dense than the winter fur, though the differences are much less than in purely terrestrial mustelids.[20]

In dark coloured individuals, the fur is dark brown or almost blackish-brown, while light individuals are reddish-brown. Fur colour is evenly distributed over the whole body, though in a few cases, the belly is a bit lighter than the upper parts. In particularly dark individuals, a dark, broad dorsal belt is present. The limbs and tail are slightly darker than the trunk. The face has no colour pattern, though its upper and lower lips and chin are pure white. White markings may also occur on the lower surface of the neck and chest. Occasionally, colour mutations such as albinoes and white spots throughout the pelage occur. The summer fur is somewhat lighter, and dirty in tone, with more reddish highlights.[20]

Differences from American mink

The European mink is similar to the American mink, though there are several important differences. The tail is longer in the American species, almost reaching half its body length. The winter fur of the American mink is denser, longer and more closely fitting that that of the European mink. Unlike the European mink, which has white patches on both upper and lower lips, the American mink almost never has white marks on the upper lip.[21] The European mink's skull is much less specialised than the American species' in the direction of carnivory, bearing more infantile features, such as a weaker dentition and less strongly developed projections.[22] The European mink is reportedly less efficient than the American species underwater.[6]


Territorial and denning behaviours

European mink by a pond

The European mink does not form large territories, possibly due to the abundance of food on the banks of small water bodies. The size of each territory varies according to the availability of food ; in areas with water meadows with little food, the home range is 60-100 hectares, though it is more usual for territories to be 12-14 hectares. Summer territories are smaller than winter territories. Along shorelines, the length of a home range ranges from 250-2000 metres, with a width of 50-60 metres.[23]

The European mink has both a permanent burrow and temporary shelters. The former is used all year except during floods, and is located no more than 6-10 metres from the water's edge. The construction of the burrow is not complex, often consisting of 1-2 passages 8-10 cm in diameter and 1.40-1.50 metres in length, leading to a nest chamber measuring 48 x 55 cm. Nesting chambers are lined with straw, moss, mouse wool and bird feathers.[23] It is more sedentary than the American mink, and will confine itself for long periods in its burrow in very cold weather.[6]

Reproduction and development

During the mating season, the sexual organs of the male enlarge greatly and become pinkish-lilac in colour, which is in contrast with the male American mink, whose organs do not change.[6] In the Moscow Zoo, estrus was observed on 22-26 April, with copulation lasting from 15 minutes to an hour. The average litter consists of 3-7 kits. At birth, kits weigh 6.5 grams, and grow rapidly, trebling their weight 10 days after birth. They are born blind, the eyes opening after 30-31 days. The lactation period lasts 2-2.5 months, though the kits eat solid food after 20-25 days. They accompany the mother on hunting expeditions at the age of 56-70 days, and become independent at the age 70-84 days.[24]


The European mink has a diverse diet consisting largely of aquatic and riparian fauna. There are little differences between its diet and that of the American mink. Voles are the most important food source, closely followed by crustaceans, frogs and water insects. Fish are an important food source in floodlands, with cases being known of European minks catching fish weighing 1-1.2 kg. The European mink's daily food requirement is 140-180 grams. In times of food abundance, the European mink caches its food.[7]

Range and status

The European mink is mostly restricted to Europe. Its range was widespread in the 19th century, with a distribution extending from northern Spain in the west to the river Ob (just east of the Urals) in the east, and from the Archangelsk region in the north to the northern Caucasus in the south. However, over the last 150 years it has severely declined and been extirpated or greatly reduced over most of its former range. The current range includes an isolated population in northern Spain and western France, which is widely disjunct from the main range in Eastern Europe (Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine, central regions of European Russia, the Danube delta in Romania and northwestern Bulgaria). It occurs from sea level to 1,120 m.[1]


Illustration from Brehms Tierleben

The earliest actual records of decreases in European mink numbers occur in Germany, having already become extinct in several areas by the end of the mid-18th century. A similar pattern occurred in Switzerland, with no records of mink being published in the 20th century. Records of mink in Austria stopped by the late 18th century. By the 1930s-1950s, the European mink became extinct in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and possibly Bulgaria. In Finland, the main decline occurred in the 1920s-1950s and the species was thought to be extinct in the 1970s, though a few specimens were reported in the 1990s. In Latvia, the European mink was thought to be extinct for years, until a specimen was captured in 1992. In Lithuania, the last specimens were caught in 1978-1979. The decline of the European mink in Estonia and Belarus was rapid during the 1980s, with only a few small fragmented populations in the northeastern regions of both countries being reported in the 1990s. The decline of European mink numbers in Ukraine began in the late 1950s, with now only a few small and isolated populations being reported in the upper courses of the Ukrainian Carpathian rivers. European mink numbers in Moldova began to drop very quickly in the 1930s, with the last known population having been confined to the lower course of the River Prut on the Romanian border by the late 1980s. In Romania, the European mink was very common and widely distributed, with 8000-10,000 being captured in 1960. Currently, Romanian mink populations are confined in the Danube Delta. In European Russia, the European mink was common and widespread in the early 20th century, but began to decline during the 1950s-1970s. The core of their range was in the Tver Region, though they began to decline there by the 1990s, which was worsened by a colonisation of the area by the American mink. Between 1981-1989, 388 European minks were introduced to two of the Kurile Islands, though by the 1990s, the population there was found to be lower than that originally released. In France and Spain, an isolated range occurs, extending from Brittany to northern Spain. Data from the 1990s indicate that the European mink has disappeared from the northern half of this previous range.[2]

Possible reasons for decline

Habitat loss

Habitat-related declines of European mink numbers may have started during the Little Ice Age, which was further aggravated by human activity.[6] As the European mink is more dependent on wetland habitats than the American species, its decline in Central Europe, Estonia, Finland, Russia, Moldova and Ukraine has been linked to the drainage of small rivers. In mid-19th century Germany, for example, European mink populations declined in a decade due to expanded land drainage. Although land improvement and river dredging certainly resulted in population decrease and fragmentation, in areas which still maintain suitable river ecosystems like Poland, Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia, Finland and Russia the decline preceded the change in wetland habitats, and may have been caused by extensive agricultural development.[2]


The European mink was historically hunted extensively, particularly in Russia, where in some districts, the decline prompted a temporary ban on mink hunting in order to let the population recover. In the early 20th century, 40-60,000 European mink were caught annually in the Soviet Union, with a record of 75,000 individuals (an estimate which exceeds the modern global European mink population). In Finland, annual mink catches reached up to 3000 specimens in the 1920s. In Romania, 10,000 minks were caught annually around 1960. However, this reason alone cannot account for the decline in areas where hunting was less intensive, such as in Germany.[2]

Decline of crayfish

The decline of European crayfish has been proposed as a factor in the drop in mink numbers, as mink are notably absent in the eastern side of the Urals, where crayfish are also absent. The decline in mink numbers has also been linked to the destruction of crayfish in Finland during the 1920s-1940s, when the crustaceans were infected with crayfish plague. The failure of the European mink to expand west to Scandinavia coincides with the gap in crayfish distribution.[2]

Competition with the American mink and disease

The American mink was introduced and released in Europe during the 1920s-1930s. The American mink is less dependent on wetland habitats than the European mink and is 20-40% larger. The impact of feral American minks on European mink populations has been explained through the competitive exclusion principle and the fact that the American mink reproduces a month earlier than the European species, and matings between male American minks and female European minks result in the embryos being reabsorbed. Thus, female European minks impregnated by male American minks are unable to reproduce with their conspecifics. Disease spread by the American mink can also account for the decline. Though the presence of the American mink has coincided with the decline of European mink numbers in Belarus and Estonia, the decline of the European mink in some areas preceded the introduction of the American mink by many years, and there are areas in Russia where the American species is absent, though European mink populations in these regions are still declining.[2]

Diseases spread by the American mink can also account for the decline.[2] 27 helminth species are recorded to infest the European mink, consisting of 14 trematodes, 2 cestodes and 11 nematodes. The mink is also vulnerable to pulmonary filariasis, krenzomatiasis and skrjabingylosis.[24] In the Leningrad and Pskov Oblasts, 77.1% of European minks were found to be infected with skrjabingylosis.[6]

Hybridisation and competition with the European polecat

In the early 20th century, northern Europe underwent a warm climatic period which coincided with an expansion of the range of the European polecat. It has been suggested that the European mink was gradually absorbed by the polecat due to hybridisation. Also, competition with the polecat has greatly increased, due to landscape change favouring the polecat. Also, competition with the polecat has greatly increased, due to landscape change favouring the polecat.[2] There is one record of a polecat attacking a mink and dragging it to its burrow.[24]

Polecat-mink hybrids are termed khor'-tumak by furriers[9] and khonorik by fanciers.[25] Such hybridisation is very rare in the wild, and typically only occurs where European mink are declining. Polecat-mink hybrids have a poorly defined facial mask, have yellow fur on the ears, grey-yellow underfur and long, dark brown guard hairs. They are fairly large, with males attaining the peak sizes known for European polecats (weighing 1,120-1,746 g and measuring 41-47 cm in length) and females being much larger than female European minks (weighing 742 g and measuring 37 cm in length).[10] The majority of polecat-mink hybrids have skulls bearing greater similarities to those of polecats than to minks.[11] Hybrids can swim well like minks and burrow for food like polecats. They are very difficult to tame and breed, as males are sterile, though females are fertile.[25][11] The first captive polecat-mink hybrid was created in 1978 by Soviet zoologist Dr. Dmitry Ternovsky of Novosibirsk. Originally bred for their fur (which was more valuable than that of either parent species), the breeding of these hybrids declined as European mink populations decreased.[25] Studies on the behavioural ecology of free ranging polecat-mink hybrids in the upper reaches of the Lovat River indicate that hybrids will stray from aquatic habitats more readily than pure minks, and will tolerate both parent species entering their territories, though the hybrid's larger size (especially the male's) may deter intrusion. During the summer period, the diet of wild polecat-mink hybrids is more similar to that of the mink than to the polecat, as they feed predominantly on frogs. During the winter, their diet overlaps more with that of the polecat, and will eat a larger proportion of rodents than in the summer, though they still rely heavily on frogs and rarely scavenge off of ungulate carcasses as the polecat does.[10]


Predators of the European mink include the European polecat, the American mink, the golden eagle, large owls[6] and the red fox. Red fox numbers have increased greatly in areas where the wolf and Eurasian lynx have been extirpated, as well as areas where modern forestry is practiced. As red foxes are known to prey on mustelids, excessive fox predation on the European mink is a possible factor, though it is improbable to have been a factor in Finland, where fox numbers were low during the early 20th century.[2]



  1. ^ a b c Maran, T., Aulagnier, S., Libois, R., Kranz, A., Abramov, A. & Wozencraft, C (2008). Mustela lutreola. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Downloaded on 7 November 2010.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Maran, T. and Henttonen, H. 1995. Why is the European mink, Mustela lutreola disappearing? - A review of the process and hypotheses. Annales Fennici Zoologici 32: 47-54.
  3. ^ Heptner & Sludskii 2002, p. 1391
  4. ^ a b Davidson, A., Griffith, H. I., Brookes, R. C., Maran, T., MacDonald, D. W., Sidorovich, V. E., Kitchener, A. C., Irizar, I., Villate, I., Gonzales-Esteban, J., Cena, A., Moya, I. and Palazon Minano, S. 2000. Mitochondrial DNA and paleontological evidence for the origin of endangered European mink, Mustela lutreola. Animal Conservation 3: 345–357.
  5. ^ a b MARMI, J., LÓPEZ-GIRÁLDEZ, J.F. & DOMINGO-ROURA, X. (2004). Phylogeny, Evolutionary History and Taxonomy of the Mustelidae based on Sequences of the Cytochrome b Gene and a Complex Repetitive Flanking Region. Zoologica Scripta, 33: 481 - 499
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Youngman, Phillip M. (1990). Mustela lutreola, Mammalian Species, American Society of Mammologists, No. 362, pp. 1-3, 2 figs
  7. ^ a b Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1101–1102
  8. ^ Kurtén 1968, p. 98
  9. ^ a b c Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1086–1088
  10. ^ a b c Sidorovich, V. (2001) Finding on the ecology of hybrids between the European mink Mustela lutreola and polecat M.putorius at the Lovat upper reaches, NE Belarus Small Carnivore Conservation 24: 1-5
  11. ^ a b c Tumanov, Igor L. & Abramov, Alexei V. (2002) A study of the hybrids between the European Mink Mustela lutreola and the Polecat M. putorius Small Carnivore Conservation 27: 29-31
  12. ^ Wozencraft, W. Christopher (16 November 2005). "Order Carnivora (pp. 532-628)". In Wilson, Don E., and Reeder, DeeAnn M., eds. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2 vols. (2142 pp.). ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0. OCLC 62265494. 
  13. ^ Heptner & Sludskii 2002, p. 1095
  14. ^ Heptner & Sludskii 2002, p. 1098
  15. ^ a b Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1096–1097
  16. ^ Heptner & Sludskii 2002, p. 1099
  17. ^ Heptner & Sludskii 2002, p. 1080
  18. ^ Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1083–1084
  19. ^ Heptner & Sludskii 2002, p. 1103
  20. ^ a b Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1081–1082
  21. ^ Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1392–1397
  22. ^ Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1398–1399
  23. ^ a b Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1102–1103
  24. ^ a b c Heptner & Sludskii 2002, pp. 1104–1105
  25. ^ a b c "Khonorik: Hybrids between Mustelidae". Russian Ferret Society. Retrieved 9 May 2011. 


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