Musteline: The Diverse and Fascinating Family of Weasels and Their Relatives
Musteline is an adjective that describes anything related to the family Mustelidae, which includes weasels, badgers, otters, martens, and wolverines. These animals are carnivorous mammals that have elongated bodies, short legs, short skulls, round ears, and thick fur. They are also known for their anal scent glands that produce a strong-smelling secretion used for communication and marking territory. Mustelids are a diverse and ancient group of animals that have adapted to various habitats and lifestyles across the world.
Classification and Evolution of Mustelids
The family Mustelidae belongs to the order Carnivora, which comprises mammals that have specialized teeth and claws for hunting and eating other animals. Within Carnivora, mustelids are part of the suborder Caniformia, which includes dogs, bears, raccoons, seals, and skunks. The closest relatives of mustelids are the procyonids (raccoons and their allies) and the mephitids (skunks and stink badgers).
Mustelids are one of the most species-rich families in Carnivora, with about 66 to 70 species in nine subfamilies. The common ancestor of modern mustelids appeared about 18 million years ago (Mya), during the Miocene epoch. Since then, mustelids have diversified into a wide range of forms and sizes, from the tiny least weasel (Mustela nivalis) that can be less than 20 cm (8 in) long, to the giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) that can measure up to 1.7 m (5 ft 7 in) and weigh over 45 kg (99 lb). Mustelids have also colonized almost every continent except Antarctica and Australia.
Subfamilies and Genera of Mustelids
The nine subfamilies of mustelids are:
Guloninae: This subfamily includes the martens, tayra, fisher, and wolverine. These animals are mostly arboreal or semi-arboreal predators that feed on rodents, birds, eggs, fruits, and honey. They have long bodies, bushy tails, and partially retractable claws. The wolverine (Gulo gulo) is the largest member of this subfamily and one of the most powerful mustelids. It can crush bones as thick as a moose femur and has been seen driving bears away from their kills.
Helictidinae: This subfamily includes the ferret-badgers. These animals are native to Asia and have striped faces and long tails. They are nocturnal and omnivorous, feeding on insects, worms, frogs, rodents, fruits, and eggs. They can spray a foul-smelling liquid from their anal glands when threatened.
Ictonychinae: This subfamily includes the grisons and the African polecats. These animals are native to Central and South America (grisons) and Africa (African polecats). They have black-and-white or gray-and-white fur patterns and feed on rodents, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and fruits. They can also spray a foul-smelling liquid from their anal glands when threatened.
Lutrinae: This subfamily includes the otters. These animals are aquatic or semi-aquatic predators that feed on fish, crustaceans, mollusks, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and small mammals. They have streamlined bodies, webbed feet, dense fur, and long whiskers. They are social animals that live in groups called rafts or romps. The sea otter (Enhydra lutris) is the only marine mustelid and the only one that lacks anal scent glands. It uses rocks to break open shellfish and has the densest fur of any mammal.
Melinae: This subfamily includes the Eurasian badgers. These animals are native to Europe and Asia and have gray-and-black fur with distinctive white stripes on their faces. They are nocturnal and omnivorous, feeding on earthworms, insects,