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Overview

Distribution

Range Description

This species is found in China, Kashmir (found across the Himalayan range of Nepal, Bhutan and India, eastern Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan ,Mongolia, DPR Korea, Russia (southern and southeastern Siberia, Primorski Krai), and Sikkim (Wozencraft, 2005). The listing from DPR Korea is in need of confirmation (W. Duckworth in litt. 2006). This species is found in the Himalayas up to 5000 m. In Bhutan, it is found from 1500-5,200 m (Thinley et al. 2004).
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Geographic Range

Mustela altaica is found in mountains of Asia, from Russian Central Asia to Korea to northern India.

Six subspecies have been described, each with a specific, more restricted range.

Biogeographic Regions: palearctic (Native )

  • Novikov, G. 1962. Carnivorous Mammals of the Fauna of the USSR. Jerusalem, Israel: IPST Press.
  • Stroganov, S. 1969. Carnivorous Mammals of Siberia. Jerusalem, Israel: IPST Press.
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Physical Description

Morphology

Physical Description

M. altaica generally resembles M. sibiricus but is smaller, with shorter fur, and a less luxuriant tail.

Males exhibit head and body length of 22 to 29 cm, with the tail adding 11 to 15 cm. Males can weigh from 217 to 350 g. Females measure 22 to 25 cm, with tails of 9 to 12 cm. They weigh from 122 to 220 g.

This species undergoes spring and autumn molts. The winter coat is dark yellowish to ruddy brown on the back, with pale yellow to creamy white on throat and belly. The upper head between the muzzle and ears is usually darker gray-brown. The tail may be more rufous than the back. the summer fur is gray to gray-brown with some light yellow. The lips of these weasles are white, and the chin has grayish-brown to whitish vibrissae.

Subspecies of M. altaica can be differentiated by fur color, which is generally a darker or lighter version of the colors described here.

Range mass: 122 to 350 g.

Range length: 217 to 287 mm.

Sexual Dimorphism: male larger

  • Nowak, R. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World. Baltimore, Maryland, USA: Johns Hopkins University Press.
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Ecology

Habitat

Habitat and Ecology

Habitat and Ecology
This species prefers alpine meadow and lives among rocky slopes. It is also found in sparse forest vegetation and predominately open landscape (Kruska 1990). The species is exclusively carnivorous, preying mainly upon voles, mice, pikas, hamsters, small birds, lizards and insects (Pocock 1941), and is particularly dependent upon pikas Ochotona across much of its range (Smith and Foggin 1999). The gestation period is 38-40 days, without delayed implantation. The litter size is 2-6, sometimes up to 13 pups (A. Abramov pers. comm. 2006).

Systems
  • Terrestrial
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The mountain weasel lives chiefly in mountains at elevations up to 3,500 m or more. It may be found in mixed taiga, highland steppes, or above timberline among heaps of stones However, observations suggest this species may be able to live in a larger range of habitats (sand dunes, among reeds, etc). It may live near human habitations and nests in rock crevices, among tree roots, or in burrow of rodents.

Range elevation: 3500 (high) m.

Habitat Regions: temperate ; terrestrial

Terrestrial Biomes: tundra ; taiga ; desert or dune ; forest ; mountains

Other Habitat Features: agricultural

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Trophic Strategy

Food Habits

Voles and pikas form a major portion of the mountain weasel's carnivorious diet. These animals may also capture muskrats, ground squirrels, young rabbits, small birds, lizards (during summer months), and to a lesser extent frogs, fish, and insects. M. altaica has also been observed to eat juniper berries in some regions. Observations in capativity suggest daily requirements of flesh are 45-54 g (3-4 domestic mice) in an adult male, though it may kill considerably more in the wild. When rodents abound, these animals are thought to eat only the blood and brain.

Animal Foods: birds; mammals; amphibians; reptiles; eggs; blood; insects; terrestrial non-insect arthropods

Primary Diet: carnivore (Eats terrestrial vertebrates, Sanguivore , Insectivore )

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Associations

Threatened Vertebrate Associates in the Hindu Kush Alpine Meadow Ecoregion

The Hindu Kush alpine meadow has an expanse of some 10,900 square miles, situated in northeastern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. Most of the lands lie within the Hindu Kush Mountain Range in  the altitude bracket between 3000 to 4000 meters, and correspondingly most of the precipitation is in the form of snow. This ecoregion is classified within the Montane Grasslands and Shrublands biome.

This ecoregion manifests a low rate of vertebrate endemism; however there are ten special status mammals found here, ranging from the status of Endangered to Near Threatened. The Hindu Kush alpine meadow ecoregion consists of higher elevation terrain of moderate to severe slopes. Vegetation is often sparse or almost lacking, with resulting pastoral usage of low intensity grazing of goats and sheep in some areas. Soils are largely leptosols, but many areas are covered by large expanses of rock outcrop or rocky scree. In the limited areas of arable soils, wheat is sometimes farmed, although growing of opium poppies is the only cash crop. Most of the water available for plant and animal life is supplied by snowmelt. The Helmand River, Afghanistan's largest watercourse, represents the chief catchment within the ecoregion, with headwaters rising in the Hindu Kush Range, and eventual discharge to the endorheic Sistan Basin.

Special status mammals found in the Hindu Kush alpine meadow are: the Near Threatened argali (Ovis ammon), the Vulnerable Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus), the Near Threatened European otter (Lutra lutra), the Near Threatened leopard (Panthera pardus), the Endangered markhor (Capra falconeri), the Near Threatened mountain weasel (Mustela altaica), the Near Threatened Schreiber's long-fingered bat (Miniopteris schreibersi), the Endangered snow leopard (Uncia uncia), the Near Threatened striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) and the Endangered Moschus leucogaster. Special status birds in the Hindu Kush alpine meadow are represented by the Endangered Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopteris).

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Ecosystem Roles

As a predatory species, M. altaica probably plays an important role in regulating the populations of small mammals, such as mice and voles.

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Predation

Predators for these animals have not been reported. Mustelids in general are very fierce, and might not be a good choice of prey for terrestrial mammalian predators, which could expect these weasles to put up a good fight. Primary predators are probably avian, such as owls and hawks.

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Known prey organisms

Mustela altaica preys on:
Lerwa lerwa
Arthropoda
Insecta
Amphibia
Reptilia
Aves
Mammalia

Based on studies in:
Tibet (Montane)

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
  • L. W. Swan, The ecology of the high Himalayas, Sci. Am. 205:68-78, from pp. 76-77 (October 1961).
  • Myers, P., R. Espinosa, C. S. Parr, T. Jones, G. S. Hammond, and T. A. Dewey. 2006. The Animal Diversity Web (online). Accessed February 16, 2011 at http://animaldiversity.org. http://www.animaldiversity.org
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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

Communication and Perception

Communication has not been described for this species. However, as mustelids go, communication typically involves a variety of forms. Vocalizations are made when animals are threatened. Tactile communication occurs between rival males, between mates, and between a mother and her offspring. Chemical communication occurs in all of the stinky mustelids. There is probably also some visual communication, as these animals do have fairly good vision.

Communication Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical

Perception Channels: visual ; acoustic

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Life Expectancy

Lifespan/Longevity

Longevity hs not been reported for this species, but for similarly sized members of the genus Mustela, there is very little variation in longevity. These animals live between 7 and 10 years. It is reasonable to assume a simlilar lifespan for M. altaica.

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Reproduction

Although the mating system of M. altaica has not been described, other species of the genus are typically polygynous. Males are known to compete for access to females, and some of their fights can be severe. Based upon the large size dimorphism in M. altaica, it is reasonable to assume that the same mating system prevails.

Mating System: polygynous

According to observations in Kazakhstan, mating occurs in February or March. Young are seen at the beginning of May. Gestation lasts 30-49 days. The variablility reported for the length of gestation may be due to delayed implantation of fertilized eggs--a feature common in other members of the genus. Litters are 1-8 young. Lactation lasts 2 months, following which young begin to lead independent lives, but remain together with litter mates until fall.

Although the timing of reproductive maturity in this species has not been reported, it is likely that like other members of the genus, young are able to breed in the following season, when they are just under a year of age.

Breeding interval: These animals breed once annually.

Breeding season: Breeding in Kazakhstan occurs in February or March.

Range number of offspring: 1 to 8.

Range gestation period: 30 to 49 days.

Average weaning age: 2 months.

Average time to independence: 2 months.

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); fertilization (Internal ); viviparous ; delayed implantation

Mustelids are born helpless, with eyes closed and fur not well developed. These altricial young are carred for in a burrow by the mother.

In M. altaica, the mother provides sole parental care. She nurses the young for approximately two months, at which time the young become independent.

Parental Investment: altricial ; pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female)

  • Novikov, G. 1962. Carnivorous Mammals of the Fauna of the USSR. Jerusalem, Israel: IPST Press.
  • Nowak, R. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World. Baltimore, Maryland, USA: Johns Hopkins University Press.
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Conservation

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
NT
Near Threatened

Red List Criteria

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2008

Assessor/s
Abramov, A., Wozencraft, C. & Ying-xiang, W.

Reviewer/s
Duckworth, J.W. (Small Carnivore Red List Authority) & Schipper, J. (Global Mammal Assessment Team)

Contributor/s

Justification
This species is listed as Near Threatened because it is currently in significant decline (but probably at a rate of less than 30% over ten years) due to habitat conversion due to over-grazing by livestock through most of its range, and through agricultural control of its main prey species, thus making the species close to qualifying for Vulnerable. This species only occurs in a mountain meadows - themselves a threatened ecosystem within the its range. The species also occurs in an area where recent climate change and predicted future change in climate could substantially reduce the habitat. This species nearly qualifies for VU A2c and should be monitored.
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With several known subspecies, and a very broad range, these animals are not currently a conservation concern.

US Federal List: no special status

CITES: no special status

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: near threatened

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Population

Population
The species is common but not abundant throughout its range. Population density fluctuates depending on prey abundance by 4 or 5 times.

Population Trend
Decreasing
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Threats

Major Threats
This species is threatened by ongoing habitat conversion due to over-grazing by livestock through most of its range and these effects seem to be worsening with habitat change. Most seriously there are agriculturally-driven pika-control campaigns across much of the weasel?s range, which have eradicated the weasel?s main food from large areas (Hornskov and Foggin 2007). It is occasionally hunted and is also susceptible to "mountain meadow" degradation, of the habitats to which it is wholly adapted. This species does not tolerate a high degree of alteration and it avoids agricultural lands.
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Management

Conservation Actions

Conservation Actions
The population in the Russian Far East is listed in the Russian Red Data Book (GMA Small Carnivore Workshop 2006). In China, the species is listed as Near Threatened (GMA Small Carnivore Workshop 2006). This species is listed in Schedule II part II of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and Appendix III of CITES (India) (http://www.wii.gov.in/envis/envisdec99/paleweasel.htm). It is protected by law in Sichuan, China (Yi-ming et al. 2000).
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Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems

Benefits

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

This species may occasionally attack domestic fowl when found near human habitation.

Negative Impacts: crop pest

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Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Mountain weasles are considered beneficial in agricultural areas because they exterminate rodents which can be agricultural pests. Some trade of fur occurs, but pelts have low trade value and thus are of not much commercial importance. The fur is usually dyed.

Positive Impacts: controls pest population

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Wikipedia

Mountain weasel

The mountain weasel (Mustela altaica), also known as the pale weasel, Altai weasel or solongoi, primarily lives in high-altitude environments, as well as rocky tundra and grassy woodlands.[2] This weasel rests in rock crevices, tree trunks, and abandoned burrows of other animals or the animals it previously hunted. The home range size of this animal is currently unknown. Geographical distribution for this species lies in parts of Asia from Kazakhstan, Tibet, and the Himalayas to Mongolia, northeastern China, southern Siberia, Korea, and also some parts of Russia. The most common area for this species, however, is Ladakh, India. The conservation status, according to the IUNC, is near threatened because it is considered to be in a significant decline and requires monitoring mainly because of habitat and resource loss.

Physical description[edit]

Painting by A. N. Komarov.

Sexual dimorphism is slight in the Altai weasel.[3] The male body length from head to base of the tail is about 8.5–11 in (220–280 mm), with the tail adding about 4–6 in (100–150 mm). Males can weigh 8–12 oz (230–340 g).[3] Females are slightly smaller, with their head and body lengths measuring around 8.5–10 in (220–250 mm), with their tails adding 3.5–5 in (89–127 mm), and they weigh about 4–8 oz (110–230 g). This species undergoes seasonal molts during the spring and autumn. The summer coat consists of gray to gray-brown fur with some light yellow, while the winter fur is more of a dark yellow with some brown. In both coats, the underbelly is pale yellow to creamy white. The upper head between the muzzle and ears is usually darker gray-brown. The tail may be more rufous than the back. The summer fur is gray to gray-brown with some light yellow. The lips are white and the chin has grayish-brown vibrissae.[3]

Reproduction[edit]

Overall, these animals are thought to be solitary animals except when mating.[3] The mating system for these animals is unknown, but other species in the same genus are polygynous. Polygynous groups usually consist of one male and multiple females. The mountain weasel breeds once a year. Males fight vigorously for access to females. Mating usually occurs in February or March, and the young are usually born in May. The gestation period is 30-49 days, but these periods of gestation and birth can be altered because the animal is capable of delayed implantation; the female can breed and the egg is fertilized, but the egg does not attach to the endometrium in the uterus to continue pregnancy until resources are available to maintain the pregnancy and feed the young. The litter size is one to eight young. The offspring are born altricial, require nourishment and depend on the mother, their eyes are closed, and their fur is not well developed. Lactation lasts about two months, and after weaning, the young become independent but remain with their littermates until fall. Young are able to breed in the following season when they are just under a year of age.[3]

Behavior[edit]

The mountain weasel is capable of climbing, running,and swimming.[3] Their long bodies and short legs allow them to be very agile. Altai weasels are generally nocturnal, but may hunt during daylight. Although solitary, they communicate with each other visually and vocally. This animal has extremely good vision. They also communicate by sound to warn of possible predators, to protect their territories, and when mating. When threatened, they emit a loud chirring sound and excrete a foul, pungent odor from their anal glands.[4]

Food habits[edit]

The mountain weasels are strict carnivores; some other animals in the suborder Canifornia are omnivores. They primarily feed on pikas and voles; they have an important ecological role in reducing or limiting the population numbers of these rodents. Along with the pikas and voles, they are also known to eat muskrats, rabbits, ground squirrels, small birds, lizards, frogs, fish, and insects.[2]

Predation[edit]

Although no predators for this species have been reported, their main predators likely are large birds.[2] Some terrestrial predators could include wolves and foxes. However, the Altai weasel is a fierce animal, so most predators usually look elsewhere for easier prey. The average lifespan of this animal is about seven to 10 years.

Threats[edit]

Some threats causing the weasel to be considered near-threatened include habitat change, mainly caused by human development,[5] and other dangers, such as traffic on roads, which can reduce their population. Overgrazing by cattle, goats, and sheep causes the prey of the weasel to diminish because their hiding spots and food are reduced. Reduction in prey is also in part due to poisoning of its main food, the pika. The pika is considered a pest because it interferes with livestock feed. Poison also can kill the weasels when they consume poisoned pikas.

Conservation[edit]

The species is listed in appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of wildlife fauna and flora. The category in which it is included consists of 45 species that are protected in at least one country which has asked for assistance in controlling the trade of that animal to safeguard resources for the future. The mountain weasel is also listed in the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 in schedule II part II by the government of India, which states the animal receives absolute protection and offenders are prescribed the highest of penalties.Penalties may include three to seven years of imprisonment or a $25,000 fine.[6]

To initiate a plan to set a nature reserve, construction, staffing, access development, and research and monitoring of the species it intends to protect and preserve are required.[5] Sometimes, it is difficult to achieve all of these requirements. For example, nature preserves were proposed in China in the Yeniugou and Xiugou valleys. Unfortunately, the plans were denied by the authorities because they viewed it as an attempt to direct the government funds to Golmud, China where these valleys are located.[5]

However, a successful nature reserve includes the Altai weasel in Kazakhstan. The West Altai State Nature Reserve was created to preserve and protect the ecosystem of the mountains and Altai forests it surrounds. It is the biggest nature reserve in Kazakhstan, and includes about 52 species of mammals, including the Altai weasel and also the food of the weasel, the pika.[7]

Although no specific conservation strategy or program is dedicated to the Altai weasel, many other programs include it or it gains advantage. For example,the Kazakhstan nature reserve protects many different species. Also, programs that protect pikas and other small mammals also help protect the weasel; Sanjiangyuan, Changtang and Kekexili nature reserves in China are in this category. Another approach to conserving this animal would be to review conservation strategies of other species in the same genus. Population declines in Mustela lutrola, the European mink, are similar to the Altai weasel - primarily caused by habitat destruction, but also from diseases. A program was established in Russia to help conserve this species by captive breeding and reintroduction; the goal was to breed minks in captivity research stations.[8]

The animals were trained to swim, build dens, and hunt, then were reintroduced into the wild to live and reproduce. Transformation of captive-bred minks into a successful wildlife population did result in problems. The main problem is adaptation to captivity, which changes some behavioral and morphological characteristics of the animal, such as their lack of fear of predators. To fix this problem, minimizing the number of generations in captivity was recommended. They used cryopreservation of gametes and embryos. Using cryopreservation and recent cloning technologies are considerations for reproducing and reintroducing the minks into the wild to preserve the species population. This approach to conserving the species could also work for the Altai weasel. Another possible strategy could include putting aside passageways between grazing lands for the weasel to be able to pass through and between woodlands to capture its food without disturbing the grazing lands of the livestock. Being able to feed and interact with the domestic grazers would take cooperation and interest of the farmers.

In Pakistan-administered Kashmir it is list as an endangered species.[citation needed]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Abramov, A., Wozencraft, C. & Ying-xiang, W. (2008). Mustela altaica. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved 21 March 2009. Database entry includes a brief justification of why this species is of near threatened
  2. ^ a b c Allen,G.M. (1938). "Mammals of China and Mongolia". American Museum of Natural History 1. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f King, Carolyn. (1989). The Natural History of Weasels and Stoats. Cornell University Press. 
  4. ^ Stroganov, S. (1969). "Carnivorous Mammals of Siberia". IPST Press. 
  5. ^ a b c Harris, R.B & Loggers. (2004). "Status of Tibetan plateau mammals in Yeniugou,China.". Wildlife Biology 10: 91–99. 
  6. ^ "Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India. "The Indian Wildlife Protection Act of 1972". 1993. [dead link]
  7. ^ "West Altai State Nature Reserve". 
  8. ^ S Amstislavsky, H Lindeberg, J Aalto and MW Kennedy. (2008). Conservation of the European mink (Mustela lutreola): focus on reproduction and Reintroduction. 


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