Mustelids are a group of fur-bearing carnivores that live in terrestrial and aquatic habitats on every content except Australia, Antarctica and some oceanic islands, making up a total of 65 species worldwide. Here in Iowa, our native mustelids include weasels, badgers, otters, fisher, martens and minks. They are generally characterized by their long, tube-shaped body, sharp non-retractable claws, short legs and strong thick necks with a small heads. Overall, mustelids are fairly small in size. The Mighty Mustelids blog series is dedicated to spotlighting these incredible animals and their role in our environment.
The American Mink has a long, sleek body that is approximately 2 feet long. They have slightly webbed feet, small ears and eyes, and a long, thick tail. Their tail makes up one-third of its length! Minks have brownish blackish fur with a white chin and throat. It is common to find the American mink anywhere near wetlands, although you may not see them as they are more active at dawn and dusk to avoid human detection and predators.
Minks live in temporarily dens, staying only a short-while before finding a new den. These dens might be an old riverbank den from a beaver or muskrat, or sometimes they will use a hallow log that is close to the water. Minks spend most of their time in or near water, constantly hunting for prey. They are strict carnivores, eating prey items such as fish, snakes, frogs, crayfish and even rabbits and other minks! Minks are excellent swimmer and can dive as deep as 16 feet and can swim 35 yards under water before coming up for air. Along with being well-adapted swimmers, they can also skilled tree climbers, descending from trees head-first with ease.
Mink were once very abundant and a common site prior to European settlement. The fur of the American Mink were made popular for coats. A typical mink fur coat would take 200 mink to make 1 single coat. The use of their fur for clothing impacted their numbers drastically. While they were never listed as threatened or endangered, there are far less mink than before the fur trade began. Due to the demand for mink coats, the American mink was introduced to Europe in captivity for breeding. Eventually, this led to the American mink escaping these captive farms causing them to become an invasive species in Europe. This became a problem because the non-native American mink would compete with the native European mink species, leading to a decline in their numbers. The American mink is an indicator species, meaning that their presence tells us a lot about the environment they are in. The American mink have been used widely to study mercury and PCB’s within aquatic habitats. Minks can bioaccumulate appreciable concentrations of certain pollutants and have been shown to be sensitive to their toxic effects. The information collected from the mink has allowed environmental health scientists to better understand and characterize pollution effects on ecosystems.
The mighty mink preserves! Come out to Pioneer Ridge Nature Area to see if you can spot a mink at one of our various ponds. Stay curious and happy hiking!