European polecat

European polecat
Temporal range: Middle Pleistocene – Recent
Storm the polecat.jpg
Welsh polecat (M. p. anglia) at the British Wildlife Centre, Newchapel, Surrey
Scientific classification edit
Species:M. putorius
Binomial name
Mustela putorius
Mustela putorius distribution.svg
Geographic range

The European polecat (Mustela putorius) – also known as the common ferret, black or forest polecat, or fitch (as well as some other names) – is a species of mustelid native to western Eurasia and north Morocco. It is of a generally dark brown colour, with a pale underbelly and a dark mask across the face. Occasionally, colour mutations, including albinos and erythrists, occur.[2] Compared to minks and other weasels – fellow members of the genus Mustela – the polecat has a shorter, more compact body;[3] a more powerfully built skull and dentition;[4] is less agile;[5] and it is well known for having the characteristic ability to secrete a particularly foul-smelling liquid to mark its territory.

It is much less territorial than other mustelids, with animals of the same sex frequently sharing home ranges.[6] Like other mustelids, the European polecat is polygamous, though pregnancy occurs directly after mating, with no induced ovulation.[7] It usually gives birth in early summer to litters consisting of five to 10 kits, which become independent at the age of two to three months. The European polecat feeds on small rodents, birds, amphibians and reptiles.[8] It occasionally cripples its prey by piercing its brain with its teeth and stores it, still living, in its burrow for future consumption.[7][9]

The European polecat originated in Western Europe during the Middle Pleistocene, with its closest living relatives being the steppe polecat, the black-footed ferret and the European mink. With the two former species, it can produce fertile offspring,[10] though hybrids between it and the latter species tend to be sterile, and are distinguished from their parent species by their larger size and more valuable pelts.[11]

The European polecat is the sole ancestor of the ferret, which was domesticated more than 2000 years ago for the purpose of hunting vermin.[12] The species has otherwise been historically viewed negatively by humans. In the British Isles especially, the polecat was persecuted by gamekeepers, and became synonymous with promiscuity in early English literature. During modern times, the polecat is still scantly represented in popular culture when compared to other rare British mammals, and misunderstandings of its behaviour still persist in some rural areas.[13] As of 2008, it is classed by the IUCN as Least Concern due to its wide range and large numbers.[1]

Etymology and naming

The word "polecat" first appeared after the Norman Conquest of England, written as polcat. While the second syllable is largely self-explanatory, the origin of the first is unclear. It is possibly derived from the French poule, meaning "chicken", likely in reference to the species' fondness for poultry, or it may be a variant of the Old English ful, meaning "foul". In Middle English, the species was referred to as foumart, meaning "foul marten", in reference to its strong odour.[citation needed] In Old French, the polecat was called fissau, which was derived from the Low German and Scandinavian verb for "to make a disagreeable smell". This was later corrupted in English as fitchew or fitchet, which itself became the word "fitch", which is used for the polecat's pelt.[14] The word fitchet is the root word for the North American fisher, which was named by Dutch colonists in America who noted similarities between the two species.[15] In some countries such as New Zealand, the term "fitch" has taken on a wider use to refer to related creatures such as ferrets, especially when farmed for their fur.[16][17]

A 2002 article in The Mammal Society's Mammal Review contested the European polecat's status as an animal indigenous to the British Isles on account of a scarce fossil record and linguistic evidence. Unlike most native British mammals, the polecat's Welsh name (ffwlbart, derived from the Middle English foulmart) is not of Celtic origin, much as the Welsh names of invasive species such as the European rabbit and fallow deer (cwningen, derived from the Middle English konyng and danas, derived from the Old French dain, respectively) are of Middle English or Old French origin. Polecats are not mentioned in Anglo-Saxon or Welsh literature prior to the Norman conquest of England in 1066, with the first recorded mention of the species in the Welsh language occurring in the 14th century's Llyfr Coch Hergest and in English in Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale (1383). In contrast, attestations of the Welsh word for pine marten (bele), date back at least to the 10th century Welsh Laws and possibly much earlier in northern England.[18]

Local and indigenous names

Dialectal English names

Probably no other animal on the British list has had as many colloquial names as the polecat. In southern England it was generally referred to as 'fitchou' whereas in the north it was 'foumat or foumard... However there were a host of others including endless spelling variations: philbert, fulmer, fishock, filibart, poulcat, poll cat, etc. Charles Oldham identified at least 20 different versions of the name in the Hertfordshire/Bedfordshire area alone.

— Roger Lovegrove (2007)[19]

Latin name

As well as the several indigenous names referring to smell (see above), the scientific name Mustela putorius is also derived from this species' foul smell. The Latin putorius translates to stench or stink and is the origin of the English word putrid.

Other Languages
aragonés: Mustela putorius
беларуская: Лясны тхор
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Тхор лясны
български: Черен пор
brezhoneg: Pudask
català: Turó comú
Чӑвашла: Хура пăсара
čeština: Tchoř tmavý
Cymraeg: Ffwlbart
dansk: Ilder
eesti: Tuhkur
Esperanto: Putoro
euskara: Ipurtats
français: Mustela putorius
Frysk: Murd
Gaeilge: Cat coille
galego: Furón bravo
한국어: 긴털족제비
hrvatski: Tvor
Ido: Putoro
interlingua: Mustela putorius
kaszëbsczi: Zwëczajny twórz
kurdî: Bûkink
latgaļu: Meža saskys
latviešu: Meža sesks
македонски: Твор
Nederlands: Bunzing
Nedersaksies: Ulk
Nordfriisk: Elk
norsk: Ilder
norsk nynorsk: Ilder
Picard: Fuchioe
português: Tourão
română: Dihor
rumantsch: Telpi
русский: Лесной хорёк
Scots: Foumart
Seeltersk: Ulk
slovenčina: Tchor tmavý
slovenščina: Evropski dihur
српски / srpski: Твор
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Mustela putorius
suomi: Hilleri
svenska: Iller
удмурт: Бызара
українська: Тхір лісовий
Tiếng Việt: Chồn hôi châu Âu
walon: Vexhåd
West-Vlams: Fiesjow
ייִדיש: אילטיס
粵語: 歐洲鼬
žemaitėška: Šešks
中文: 歐洲鼬