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7 Fierce Facts About Weasels

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Weasels may look cute and cuddly, but trust us: you don't want to get too close to these little beasts. Here are seven things you might not know about the fierce furballs.

1. They’re Killing Machines

They might have cute little faces, but weasels are also bloodthirsty. It’s a matter of necessity: they have super-fast metabolisms and need to kill and eat about half their body weight every day. As a result, they’ve become fearsome hunters. The weasel corners and grabs its prey, wraps its muscular body around the animal to immobilize it and then delivers a single killing bite to the back of the head, puncturing the skull or spinal cord. You know what other animal kills like that? The jaguar

The weasel’s bloodlust is instinctual and triggered by movement. Even on a full belly, a weasel will kill anything that moves and looks like prey. And to the tenacious weasel, pretty much everything looks like prey. Tiny weasels have been seen killing and carrying off animals twice, four times, and even 10 times their size

2. They Save Their Leftovers

When prey is plentiful, a frenzied weasel will often kill much more than it can eat. This is no problem; the leftovers will keep. Weasels evolved in cold climates, and learned to use this to their advantage. They dig little underground caches near their den entrances and keep them stocked with leftovers. In the winter, when it’s too cold to go outside, a weasel can just go to the fridge and pull out yesterday’s vole or that extra mouse from last week.

Like any refrigerator, the caches can occasionally get out of control. Scientists found one cache in Greenland stuffed with the carcasses of almost 150 lemmings

3. They Do a War Dance

Weasels, stoats, and even domesticated ferrets all perform a hilarious “weasel war dance” when they’ve got their prey cornered. Scientists aren’t totally sure why they do this. One theory is that the weasel’s wacky twisting, hopping, and darting around distracts, confuses, or even hypnotizes prey animals. In one case, researchers concluded that a number of rabbits killed by stoats had actually “died of fright” after being subjected to the weasel war dance. 

But sometimes there’s no prey in sight, and a weasel’s just dancing on its own. With no audience and no chance to kill anything, weasels may dance for the same reason we do—because it’s fun. 

4. They’re Not Afraid to Fly

Remember that viral picture of the weasel “riding” a woodpecker? That “ride” was probably more like a hijacking. There’s a long, rich history of weasels attacking birds, including kiwis, magpies, owls, herons, and even birds of prey, as Dr. Carolyn M. King observed in her article “Weasel Roulette”:

 [A] British observer named Anderson witnessed a buzzard, or European hawk, swoop down, pick up a weasel from the ground, and then fly off to its usual feeding perch. But within seconds the buzzard's smooth flight turned into an ungainly struggle, and it eventually fell to the ground. Anderson ran to where it fell, and there was the buzzard lying dead on the ground, its underparts bloody, and the weasel still gripping its breast with meshed teeth. 

Naturally, these gambits do not always work out in the weasel’s favor, hence the term “roulette.” (On a related note, a weasel's lifespan is a mere 1 to 2 years in the wild, for obvious reasons.) But when they do? Watch out. 

5. They Deploy Stink Bombs

By now, you’ve probably realized that it’s a bad idea to cross a weasel. On the off chance you aren’t totally sure, consider the following: a cornered weasel can blast its opponent in the face with a thick, oily, yellowish fluid that positively reeks. Like its cousin the skunk, the weasel brews up tablespoons of this special “musk” in little pouches under its tail, then shoots it out on special occasions. Do not stick around during one of those occasions.  

6. They’re Legendary Monster Slayers

The Algonquian-speaking peoples of Canada and the U.S. tell stories of the windigo (also spelled wendigo and witiko), an enormous, man-eating monster. According to legend, the windigo is cursed with an insatiable hunger. Eating does not satiate the beast; instead, with every meal, the monster grows in size and becomes even hungrier. The windigo stalks from village to village, devouring the inhabitants and wanderers along the road. No man can destroy him. 

One day, the windigo captures a traveler. He sends the terrified man out to find sticks for his own cook fire. Along the way, the man encounters a weasel and begs it desperately for help. The man returns to the monster with the weasel hidden in his clothing. As they approach, the weasel rushes at the windigo and climbs into his anus. The windigo begins to look quite ill, and soon falls down dead: the tiny, brave weasel has eaten his heart from within. 

7. They Glow Purple Under a Black Light (Allegedly)

Weasels were plentiful in Pennsylvania in the early 1950s, but they weren’t welcome. After the Pennyslvania Game Commission offered a bounty for every weasel pelt, they found themselves inundated with fur. The region was home to three weasel species, but once the weasel's tail had been removed, the pelts all looked pretty much the same. So how could they figure out which species a pelt belonged to?

One employee thought he had the answer. In 1953, Roger M. Latham wrote a letter to the Journal of Mammalogy [PDF], announcing a “Simple Method for Identification of Least Weasel.”

“It was discovered,” he wrote, “that the fur of the least weasel would fluoresce under ultra-violet light, producing a vivid lavender color. The fur of the other two species remained a dull brown … Thus, identification is positively and simply made, immediately.” 

Latham’s glow-in-the-dark-weasel trick thereby entered the canon of weasel facts. Even today, you can find numerous sources claiming that least weasels glow under UV light. There’s just one problem: his method has never been validated. Nobody has ever reproduced his attempts. Still, it’s possible that Mustela nivalis glows in the dark. Given everything else we know about weasels, it wouldn’t be surprising.

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Big Questions
Should You Keep Your Pets Indoors During the Solar Eclipse?
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By now, you probably know what you’ll be doing on August 21, when a total solar eclipse makes its way across the continental United States. You’ve had your safety glasses ready since January (and have confirmed that they’ll actually protect your retinas), you’ve picked out the perfect vantage point in your area for the best view, and you’ve memorized Nikon’s tips for how to take pictures of this rare celestial phenomenon. Still, it feels like you’re forgetting something … and it’s probably the thing that's been right under your nose, and sitting on your lap, the whole time: your pets.

Even if you’ve never witnessed a solar eclipse, you undoubtedly know that you’re never supposed to look directly at the sun during one. But what about your four-legged family members? Shouldn’t Fido be fitted with a pair of eclipse glasses before he heads out for his daily walk? Could Princess Kitty be in danger of having her peepers singed if she’s lounging on her favorite windowsill? While, like humans, looking directly at the sun during a solar eclipse does pose the potential of doing harm to a pet’s eyes, it’s unlikely that the thought would even occur to the little ball of fluff.

“It’s no different than any other day,” Angela Speck, co-chair of the AAS National Solar Eclipse Task Force, explained during a NASA briefing in June. “On a normal day, your pets don’t try to look at the sun and therefore don’t damage their eyes, so on this day they’re not going to do it either. It is not a concern, letting them outside. All that’s happened is we’ve blocked out the sun, it’s not more dangerous. So I think that people who have pets want to think about that. I’m not going to worry about my cat.”

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, a veterinarian, author, and founder of pawcurious, echoed Speck’s statement, but allowed that there’s no such thing as being too cautious. “It’s hard for me to criticize such a well-meaning warning, because there’s really no harm in following the advice to keep pets inside during the eclipse,” Vogelsang told Snopes. “It’s better to be too cautious than not cautious enough. But in the interest of offering a realistic risk assessment, the likelihood of a pet ruining their eyes the same way a human would during an eclipse is much lower—not because the damage would be any less were they to stare at the sun, but because, from a behavior standpoint, dogs and cats just don’t have any interest in doing so. We tend to extrapolate a lot of things from people to pets that just doesn’t bear out, and this is one of them.

“I’ve seen lots of warnings from the astronomy community and the human medical community about the theoretical dangers of pets and eclipses, but I’m not sure if any of them really know animal behavior all that well," Vogelsang continued. "It’s not like there’s a big outcry from the wildlife community to go chase down coyotes and hawks and bears and give them goggles either. While we in the veterinary community absolutely appreciate people being concerned about their pets’ wellbeing, this is a non-issue for us.”

The bigger issue, according to several experts, would be with pets who are already sensitive to Mother Nature. "If you have the sort of pet that's normally sensitive to shifts in the weather, they might be disturbed by just the whole vibe because the temperature will drop and the sky will get dark,” Melanie Monteiro, a pet safety expert and author of The Safe-Dog Handbook: A Complete Guide to Protecting Your Pooch, Indoors and Out, told TODAY.

“If [your pets] have learned some association with it getting darker, they will show that behavior or at a minimum they get confused because the timeframe does not correspond,” Dr. Carlo Siracusa of Penn Vet Hospital told CBS Philly. “You might put the blinds down, but not exactly when the dark is coming but when it is still light.” 

While Monteiro again reasserts that, "Dogs and cats don't normally look up into the sun, so you don't need to get any special eye protection for your pets,” she says that it’s never a bad idea to take some extra precautions. So if you’re headed out to an eclipse viewing party, why not do your pets a favor and leave them at home. They won’t even know what they’re missing.

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Big Questions
Why Can't Dogs Eat Chocolate?
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Even if you don’t have a dog, you probably know that they can’t eat chocolate; it’s one of the most well-known toxic substances for canines (and felines, for that matter). But just what is it about chocolate that is so toxic to dogs? Why can't dogs eat chocolate when we eat it all the time without incident?

It comes down to theobromine, a chemical in chocolate that humans can metabolize easily, but dogs cannot. “They just can’t break it down as fast as humans and so therefore, when they consume it, it can cause illness,” Mike Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss.

The toxic effects of this slow metabolization can range from a mild upset stomach to seizures, heart failure, and even death. If your dog does eat chocolate, they may get thirsty, have diarrhea, and become hyperactive and shaky. If things get really bad, that hyperactivity could turn into seizures, and they could develop an arrhythmia and have a heart attack.

While cats are even more sensitive to theobromine, they’re less likely to eat chocolate in the first place. They’re much more picky eaters, and some research has found that they can’t taste sweetness. Dogs, on the other hand, are much more likely to sit at your feet with those big, mournful eyes begging for a taste of whatever you're eating, including chocolate. (They've also been known to just swipe it off the counter when you’re not looking.)

If your dog gets a hold of your favorite candy bar, it’s best to get them to the vet within two hours. The theobromine is metabolized slowly, “therefore, if we can get it out of the stomach there will be less there to metabolize,” Topper says. Your vet might be able to induce vomiting and give your dog activated charcoal to block the absorption of the theobromine. Intravenous fluids can also help flush it out of your dog’s system before it becomes lethal.

The toxicity varies based on what kind of chocolate it is (milk chocolate has a lower dose of theobromine than dark chocolate, and baking chocolate has an especially concentrated dose), the size of your dog, and whether or not the dog has preexisting health problems, like kidney or heart issues. While any dog is going to get sick, a small, old, or unhealthy dog won't be able to handle the toxic effects as well as a large, young, healthy dog could. “A Great Dane who eats two Hershey’s kisses may not have the same [reaction] that a miniature Chihuahua that eats four Hershey’s kisses has,” Topper explains. The former might only get diarrhea, while the latter probably needs veterinary attention.

Even if you have a big dog, you shouldn’t just play it by ear, though. PetMD has a handy calculator to see just what risk levels your dog faces if he or she eats chocolate, based on the dog’s size and the amount eaten. But if your dog has already ingested chocolate, petMD shouldn’t be your go-to source. Call your vet's office, where they are already familiar with your dog’s size, age, and condition. They can give you the best advice on how toxic the dose might be and how urgent the situation is.

So if your dog eats chocolate, you’re better off paying a few hundred dollars at the vet to make your dog puke than waiting until it’s too late.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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