Out there: Weasel's coal-black tail is a sign of deceit

2014-03-23T00:00:00Z Out there: Weasel's coal-black tail is a sign of deceitANDREW McKEAN For The Gazette The Billings Gazette
March 23, 2014 12:00 am  • 

I’m used to opening my front door to decapitated mice and the occasional savaged sparrow. These are the “gifts” our cats leave us, the felines probably reading (correctly) that I think they are worthless loafers, and their morbid donations don’t do much to change my mind.

But this week I found a different sacrament on the welcome mat. It was a short-tailed weasel, still wearing its winter-white fur, dead as a pork chop, its only sign of trauma a thin wound, presumably caused by a cat’s claw, from its throat to its pelvis.

The carcass made me (temporarily) respect the cats. Any critter that can tangle with a weasel and come out ahead gets my nod. Before I disposed of the evidence, I studied the ermine. It’s easy to see why the pure white of the winter coat is prized by furriers. It is thick, almost dazzling in its brilliance and uniform. But one feature stands out in stark contrast: its coal-black tail.

No one is really sure why, when the rest of their fur turns white in the late fall, ermines’ tails don’t make the transition. Some biologists think the weasel’s black tail is engineered to deceive its predators, including owls, hawks, foxes and house cats. The predators are misdirected by the obvious tail, giving the rest of the snow-white animal a chance to escape the talons, claws and fangs of its persecutors.

The deceit obviously doesn’t work all the time, as the cat-killed corpse at my front door proved, and it’s not a camouflage that will work much longer, as our landscape turns to the green of spring and then to the brown of summer and fall.

But that suits the weasels’ lifestyle. As the grass and other cover grows, the little tube-shaped animals have plenty of places to hide. It’s when the snow covers the ground again that the short-tailed weasel relies on its transformation to hide it in plain sight of all but the most sharp-eyed predators.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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