Mustelidae is the largest family within Carnivora and is comprised of 56 species in 22 genera. Members of this family include weasels, stoats, polecats, mink, marten, fishers, wolverines, otters, badgers and others. While many authors have traditionally considered skunks a subfamily within Mustelidae, recent molecular evidence indicates that skunks do not lie within the mustelid group and instead are recognized as a single family, Mephitidae, a systematic understanding which is accepted here (Dragoo and Honeycutt, 1997; Flynn et al., 2005; Marmi et. al., 2004; Sato et. al., 2003; Sato et. al., 2004).
Mustelids inhabit all continents except Australia and Antarctica, and do not occur on Madagascar or oceanic islands. Members of this group can be found in diverse habitats, which include both terrestrial, aquatic and marine environments. Mustelids are mainly carnivorous, with various members of the family exploiting a great diversity of both vertebrate and invertebrate prey. Mustelids are generally proficient hunters; some weasels can take prey larger than themselves. Members of this family often hunt in burrows and crevices, and some species have evolved to become adept at climbing trees (e.g., marten) or swimming (e.g., sea otters, mink) in search of prey.
Generally, mustelids have elongate bodies with short legs and a short rostrum, as typified by weasels, ferrets, mink, and otters. Wolverines and badgers have broader bodies. An order of magnitude difference in size exists between the smallest and largest mustelid species. The smallest species is the least weasel (Mustela nivalis), weighing between 35 and 250 grams. Wolverines (Gulo gulo) and sea otters (Enhydra lutris) reach 32 kg and 45 kg, respectively. All mustelids have well developed anal scent glands, which serve various functions, including territorial marking and defense.
- Flynn, J., J. Finarelli, S. Zehr, J. Hsu, M. Nedbal. 2005. Molecular phylogeny of the Carnivora (Mammalia): Assessing the impact of increased sampling on resolving enigmatic relationships. Systematic Biology, 54: 317-337.
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