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Concept: Mustelidae


The use of information provided by others to tackle life’s challenges is widespread, but should not be employed indiscriminately if it is to be adaptive. Evidence is accumulating that animals are indeed selective and adopt ‘social learning strategies’. However, studies have generally focused on fish, bird and primate species. Here we extend research on social learning strategies to a taxonomic group that has been neglected until now: otters (subfamily Lutrinae). We collected social association data on captive groups of two gregarious species: smooth-coated otters (Lutrogale perspicillata), known to hunt fish cooperatively in the wild, and Asian short-clawed otters (Aonyx cinereus), which feed individually on prey requiring extractive foraging behaviours. We then presented otter groups with a series of novel foraging tasks, and inferred social transmission of task solutions with network-based diffusion analysis. We show that smooth-coated otters can socially learn how to exploit novel food sources and may adopt a ‘copy when young’ strategy. We found no evidence for social learning in the Asian short-clawed otters. Otters are thus a promising model system for comparative research into social learning strategies, while conservation reintroduction programmes may benefit from facilitating the social transmission of survival skills in these vulnerable species.

Concepts: Otters, Mustelidae, Mammals of Asia, Otter, Social, Aonyx, Smooth-coated Otter, Lutrogale


BACKGROUND: Aleutian mink disease virus (AMDV) is widespread among ranched and free-ranging American mink in Canada, but there is no information on its prevalence in other wild animal species. This paper describes the prevalence of AMDV of 12 furbearing species in Nova Scotia (NS), Canada. METHODS: Samples were collected from carcasses of 462 wild animals of 12 furbearing species, trapped in 10 NS counties between November 2009 and February 2011. Viral DNA was tested by PCR using two primer pairs, and anti-viral antibodies were tested by counterimmunoelectrophoresis (CIEP) on spleen homogenates. RESULTS: Positive PCR or CIEP samples were detected in 56 of 60 (93.3%) American mink, 43 of 61 (70.5%) short-tailed weasels, 2 of 8 (25.0%) striped skunks, 2 of 11 (18.2%) North American river otters, 9 of 85 (10.6%) raccoons, and 2 of 20 (10.0%) bobcats. Samples from six fishers, 24 coyotes, 25 red foxes, 58 beavers, 45 red-squirrels and 59 muskrats were negative. Antibodies to AMDV were detected by CIEP in 16 of 56 (28.6%) mink and one of the 8 skunks (12.5%). Thirteen of the mink and one skunk were positive for PCR and CIEP, but three mink and one skunk were CIEP positive and PCR negative. Positive CIEP or PCR animals were present in all nine counties from which mink or weasel samples were collected. CONCLUSIONS: The presence of AMDV in so many species across the province has important epidemiological ramifications and could pose a serious health problem for the captive mink, as well as for susceptible wildlife. The mechanism of virus transmission between wildlife and captive mink and the effects of AMDV exposure on the viability of the susceptible species deserve further investigation.

Concepts: Mustelidae, Carnivora, Wildlife


The increase in Eurasian otter Lutra lutra populations in their natural range and recolonization processes are recently observed in several European countries. We address the process of otter recolonization and habitat utilization in Central Poland over 14 years. Field surveys in 1998 and 2007 documented increase in occurrence of the species. The frequency of positive sites denoted 15 % in 1993, 38 % in 1998, and 89 % in 2007. Otter occurrence at study sites was positively affected by river width while negatively affected by presence of buildings at the site and river regulation. During the most intensive colonization process in the 1990s, the habitat preferences of the otter did not change. However, the sites inhabited by otters after 1998 were characterized by lower river width and tree cover and were more often located on regulated river sections, suggesting change in habitat tolerance during expansion. The otter abundance in transformed habitats is a result of increasing population numbers and the necessity to inhabit suboptimal sections of watercourses. Thus, it seems that presence-absence data for otter populations cannot be considered a reliable indicator of habitat quality, being depended of the population density.

Concepts: Population, Population density, Otters, Mustelidae, Otter, European Otter


Monitoring of fur-bearing species populations is relatively rare due to their low densities. In addition to catch data, trappers' experience provides information on the ecology and status of the harvested species. Fisher (Pekania pennanti) and American marten (Martes americana) are mustelids that are sensitive to forest management and therefore considered to be ecological indicators of forest health. Fisher populations have increased in eastern North America since the early 2000s and this could have resulted in a northeastern extension of the species' range and increased overlap with marten’s range. Moreover, habitats of both species are subject to natural and anthropogenic disturbances. The objective of this study was to document the knowledge held by local trappers in the northern area of sympatry between fisher and marten to identify factors that could explain variation in populations of the two species and interactions between them.

Concepts: Mustelidae, Marten, Mustelinae, Martens, American Marten, Mammals of Canada, Sable, Newfoundland Pine Marten


At 50 kg in estimated weight, the extinct Siamogale melilutra is larger than all living otters, and ranks among the largest fossil otters. The biomechanical capability of S. melilutra jaws as related to their large size is unknown but crucial to reconstructing the species' potentially unique ecological niche. Here we compare the mandibular biomechanics of S. melilutra using engineering-based performance measures against ten extant otter biomechanical models. Despite a wide range of feeding preferences from durophagy to piscivory, living otter species exhibit a linear relationship between mandible stiffness and volume, as expected in isometric model scaling. In contrast, S. melilutra models exhibit a six-fold increase in stiffness from expected stiffness-volume relationships calculated from extant species models. Unlike stiffness, mechanical efficiency of biting is conserved among living otters and in S. melilutra. These findings indicate that although similar to living bunodont otters in morphology and biting efficiency, jaw strength in S. melilutra far surpasses molluscivores such as sea otters and Cape clawless otters, even after accounting for size. Therefore, Siamogale represents a feeding ecomorphology with no living analog, and its giant size and high mandibular strength confer shell-crushing capability matched only by other extinct molluscivores such as the marine bear Kolponomos.

Concepts: Biomechanics, Extinction, Otters, Mustelidae, Sea otter, Otter, Extant taxon, Aonyx


Identification of cellular receptors and characterization of viral tropism in animal models have vastly improved our understanding of morbillivirus pathogenesis. However, specific aspects of viral entry, dissemination and transmission remain difficult to recapitulate in animal models. Here, we used three virologically identical but phenotypically distinct recombinant ® canine distemper viruses (CDV) expressing different fluorescent reporter proteins for in vivo competition and airborne transmission studies in ferrets (Mustela putorius furo). Six donor ferrets simultaneously received three rCDVs expressing green, red or blue fluorescent proteins via conjunctival (ocular, Oc), intra-nasal (IN) or intra-tracheal (IT) inoculation. Two days post-inoculation sentinel ferrets were placed in physically separated adjacent cages to assess airborne transmission. All donor ferrets developed lymphopenia, fever and lethargy, showed progressively increasing systemic viral loads and were euthanized 14 to 16 days post-inoculation. Systemic replication of virus inoculated via the Oc, IN and IT routes was detected in 2/6, 5/6 and 6/6 ferrets, respectively. In five donor ferrets the IT delivered virus dominated, although replication of two or three different viruses was detected in 5/6 animals. Single lymphocytes expressing multiple fluorescent proteins were abundant in peripheral blood and lymphoid tissues, demonstrating the occurrence of double and triple virus infections. Transmission occurred efficiently and all recipient ferrets showed evidence of infection between 18 and 22 days post-inoculation of the donor ferrets. In all cases, airborne transmission resulted in replication of a single-colored virus, which was the dominant virus in the donor ferret. This study demonstrates that morbilliviruses can use multiple entry routes in parallel, and co-infection of cells during viral dissemination in the host is common. Airborne transmission was efficient, although transmission of viruses expressing a single color suggested a bottleneck event. The identity of the transmitted virus was not determined by the site of inoculation but by the viral dominance during dissemination.

Concepts: Protein, Virus, Influenza, Canine distemper, Mustelidae, Ferret, European Polecat, Black-footed Ferret


Anticoagulant rodenticide (AR) poisoning has emerged as a significant concern for conservation and management of non-target wildlife. The purpose for these toxicants is to suppress pest populations in agricultural or urban settings. The potential of direct and indirect exposures and illicit use of ARs on public and community forest lands have recently raised concern for fishers (Martes pennanti), a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act in the Pacific states. In an investigation of threats to fisher population persistence in the two isolated California populations, we investigate the magnitude of this previously undocumented threat to fishers, we tested 58 carcasses for the presence and quantification of ARs, conducted spatial analysis of exposed fishers in an effort to identify potential point sources of AR, and identified fishers that died directly due to AR poisoning. We found 46 of 58 (79%) fishers exposed to an AR with 96% of those individuals having been exposed to one or more second-generation AR compounds. No spatial clustering of AR exposure was detected and the spatial distribution of exposure suggests that AR contamination is widespread within the fisher’s range in California, which encompasses mostly public forest and park lands Additionally, we diagnosed four fisher deaths, including a lactating female, that were directly attributed to AR toxicosis and documented the first neonatal or milk transfer of an AR to an altricial fisher kit. These ARs, which some are acutely toxic, pose both a direct mortality or fitness risk to fishers, and a significant indirect risk to these isolated populations. Future research should be directed towards investigating risks to prey populations fishers are dependent on, exposure in other rare forest carnivores, and potential AR point sources such as illegal marijuana cultivation in the range of fishers on California public lands.

Concepts: Demography, Population, Endangered species, Mustelidae, Carnivore, Endangered Species Act, United States Census Bureau


We describe cranial and mandibular remains of three undescribed individuals of the giant mustelid Megalictis ferox Matthew, 1907 from the latest Arikareean (Ar4), Early Miocene mammal fauna of Nebraska, and Wyoming (USA) housed at the American Museum of Natural History (New York, USA). Our phylogenetic hypothesis indicates that Ar4 specimens assigned to M. ferox constitute a monophyletic group. We assign three additional species previously referred to Paroligobunis to Megalictis: M. simplicidens, M. frazieri, and “M.” petersoni. The node containing these four species of Megalictis and Oligobunis forms the Oligobuninae. We test the hypothesis that Oligobuninae (Megalictis and Oligobunis) is a stem mustelid taxon. Our results indicate that the Oligobuninae form the sister clade to the crown extant mustelids. Based on the cranium, M. ferox is a jaguar-size mustelid and the largest terrestrial mustelid known to have existed. This new material also sheds light on a new ecomorphological interpretation of M. ferox as a bone-crushing durophage (similar to hyenas), rather than a cat-like hypercarnivore, as had been previously described. The relative large size of M. ferox, together with a stout rostrum and mandible made it one of the more powerful predators of the Early Miocene of the Great Plains of North America.

Concepts: United States, Phylogenetics, North America, Mustelidae, Carnivora, Great Plains, Megalictis, Oligobunis


This study investigated digestibilities of nutrients and feed efficiency in female mink at the different dietary protein levels during the mink growth period. Effects of dietary protein on growth performance of minks were also measured. Sixty 45-day-old healthy female minks were randomly assigned to 6 treatment groups with 10 animals in each group. Animals were fed diets varying in protein levels: 28% (Group I), 30% (Group II), 32% (Group III), 34% (Group IV), 36% (Group V) and 38% (Group VI), respectively. The digestibilities of key nutrients were determined on Day 14 after initiating the experiment and the last 3 days. From the beginning of the study, body weight and feed intake were weighed and recorded every other week in order to calculate the average daily bodyweight gain and the feed efficiency. The trial had demonstrated that nitrogen intake was greatly significantly different, which was affected by dietary protein levels (p < 0.001). Growth performance of minks was impaired when dietary protein level was at 28%. When dietary protein level was at 34%, minks had the best daily gains, feed efficiency, and digestibilities of some key nutrients.

Concepts: Protein, Nutrition, Nitrogen, C-reactive protein, Digestion, Mustelidae, Carnivora, Mink


The effects of feeding farm-raised mink (Mustela vison) diets containing polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB)-contaminated fish from the upper Hudson River (New York, USA) on adult reproductive performance and kit growth and mortality were evaluated. Diets contained 2.5 to 20% Hudson River fish, providing 0.72 to 6.1 µg ΣPCBs/g feed (4.8-38 pg toxic equivalents [TEQ(WHO 2005) ]/g feed). The percentage of stillborn kits per litter was significantly increased by dietary concentrations of 4.5 µg ΣPCBs/g feed (28 pg TEQ(WHO 2005) /g feed) and greater. All offspring exposed to dietary concentrations of 4.5 and 6.1 µg ΣPCBs/g feed (28 and 38 pg TEQ(WHO 2005) /g feed) died by 10 weeks of age, and all offspring exposed to 1.5 and 2.8 µg ΣPCBs/g feed (10 and 18 pg TEQ(WHO 2005) /g feed) died by 31 weeks of age, leaving juveniles in the control and 0.72-µg ΣPCBs/g feed (0.41- and 4.8-pg TEQ(WHO 2005) /g feed) groups only. The dietary concentration predicted to result in 20% kit mortality (LC20) at six weeks of age was 0.34 µg ΣPCBs/g feed (2.6 pg TEQ(WHO 2005) /g feed). The corresponding maternal hepatic concentration was 0.80 µg ΣPCBs/g liver, wet weight (13 pg TEQ(WHO 2005) /g liver, wet wt). Mink residing in the upper Hudson River would be expected to consume species of fish that contain an average of 4.0 µg ΣPCBs/g tissue. Thus, a daily diet composed of less than 10% Hudson River fish could provide a dietary concentration of ΣPCBs that resulted in 20% kit mortality in the present study. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. © 2012 SETAC.

Concepts: Death, Concentration, Water pollution, Polychlorinated biphenyl, Mustelidae, Carnivora, New York, Hudson River