Back in the mid-1960s, when I was just a small child, I was bought an alphabetically-arranged weekly partwork entitled Purnell's Encyclopaedia of Animal Life that ran for 96 weeks and which when complete yielded six hefty and exceedingly comprehensive full-colour volumes. Edited by famous British zoologists Drs Maurice and Robert Burton, these red-bound fact-filled, photo-brimming tomes totally enthralled me, and I read them over and over again. Moreover, I still own them today and they remain an extremely useful, informative source of reference. Indeed, it is perfectly true to say that this wonderful publication quite simply transformed my life as a budding zoologist, unveiling a vast array of extraordinary animals that were totally new to me. Crucially, it was also the very first zoological publication owned by me that included the taxonomic binomial names of the animals documented in its countless pages. (These binomial names, which trace their origin back to Linnaeus's revolutionary system of wildlife classification back in the 1700s, are commonly referred to colloquially as 'Latin names', even though many are derived from Greek rather than Latin.) As a result, I have been fascinated with zoological nomenclature and taxonomy ever since.
And so it was that while others of my age were memorizing football teams and car makes/models, I was enthusiastically learning the binomial names of as many animals as my besieged brain cells could accommodate, and then some, and I have continued to do so ever since. However, just like every other aspect of science, zoological nomenclature and taxonomy are ever changing, ever expanding, ever modifying as new information concerning the evolutionary origins and relationships of species and other taxa continues to emerge. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that many of the binomials and classifications of animals that I diligently learned six decades ago have since changed or transformed dramatically – but also sometimes confusingly – meaning that I am perpetually engaged in taxonomic catch-up, often having to abandon binomials that I've fondly recollected for countless years in favour of new, unfamiliar ones.
Sadly, these include the very first binomial that I ever learned, from my trusty Purnell's Encyclopaedia. It was Alopex lagopus, the Arctic fox, which has stayed with me ever since, never forgotten, a faithful reminder of where my enduring passion for such nomenclature began. And then, to my horror, some wretched wrecker of childhood memories in taxonomist form came along (albeit a fair few years ago now), and decided that the Arctic fox did not warrant its own genus, Alopex, distinct from Vulpes, which houses the true foxes, and should therefore be subsumed into their genus. Consequently, to my horror, the first binomial that I had ever leant was no more! Suddenly, "Alopex lagopus the Arctic fox" – the much-loved taxonomic mantra that had chanted happily away to itself in the backrooms of my memory for decades – had been rendered obsolete, jettisoned to nomenclatural obscurity as nothing more from now on than a synonym of Vulpes lagopus. The dread deed was done, and it is now this latter binomial that is recognized as the Arctic fox's official one – but although I outwardly accept it and grudgingly use it when writing about this species, inside my mind the Arctic fox is and always will be Alopex lagopus. So be it, forever and ever, amen.
I mentioned earlier here that sometimes the changing of taxonomic names and classifications can be a source of confusion, which is where this ShukerNature blog article's mustelid theme now kicks in and is the reason for my prefacing it with an explanation of how and why binomials have always interested me.
Back when I was a child, most of the wildlife books that I owned readily differentiated three very small species within the genus Mustela. These were referred to as the common weasel (or simply as the weasel) M. nivalis (with a head-and-body length of 5-10 in and a tail length of 0.5-3.5 in, native to much of continental Europe as well as Great Britain but not Ireland), the pygmy weasel M. pygmaea (given as being smaller than M. nivalis, and native to Fareastern Russia, Siberia, and Mongolia), and the least weasel M. rixosa (given as being even smaller than M. pygmaea, native to Canada and parts of the northern USA, and listed back then in the Guinness Book of Records as not only the world's smallest species of mustelid but also its smallest species of any type of carnivoran, i.e. belonging to the taxonomic order Carnivora). So far, so simple – but then it all changed…
Many years later, I started noticing in books and articles that M. nivalis was now being referred to as the least weasel and being claimed to be the world's smallest mustelid and carnivoran. So what had happened to M. rixosa (and also M. pygmaea, for that matter)? This name-change was especially curious, given that the least weasel M. rixosa that I had grown up reading about was a wholly New World species whereas M. nivalis was a wholly Old World one. To quote the website NatureServe Explorer's 'Mustela nivalis Least Weasel' page as of today, 8 May 2021 (click here to access the full page):
The North American population sometimes is treated as a separate species, Mustela rixosa. Confusion has existed for a long time regarding the taxonomic status of this species [M. nivalis] and its subspecies, particularly in Europe (see Sheffield and King 1994; Wozencraft, in Wilson and Reeder 2005).
How very true! Further research has revealed to me that generally, but by no means universally, taxonomists nowadays deem what used to be called the least weasel (i.e. the New World species M. rixosa) to be merely a subspecies of what used to be called the common weasel (or weasel) M. nivalis, thus renaming it M. n. rixosa, which is fair enough. However, they have also elected (for reasons that entirely escape me) to utilise the latter subspecies' original common name as the name for the entire species.
In other words, no longer is M. nivalis called the common weasel or weasel. Instead, it is now called the least weasel – which to my mind is a totally unnecessary and highly confusing name-change, especially for those like myself who have long known the least weasel to be the name of the New World's tiniest of tiny mustelids, but which is nowadays called Bangs' least weasel instead.
Moreover, the pygmy weasel M. pygmaea has been demoted to a subspecies of M. nivalis too. As a result, it has been renamed M. n. pygmaea, and is now called the Siberian least weasel instead of the pygmy weasel.
So instead of having a naming system for this trio of mustelids that was not only readily memorable by being succinct but also instantly conveyed useful information concerning them – 'common weasel', 'pygmy weasel', and 'least weasel' clearly revealing the sizes of these three forms relative to each other, self-evidently reducing in size from 'common' through 'pygmy' to 'least' – we now have one that is harder to remember and conveys no information whatsoever concerning their relative sizes. After all, how can we tell which is the biggest, the medium-sized, and the smallest from the names 'least weasel', 'Siberian least weasel', and 'Bangs' least weasel'? And there was I, thinking that the purpose of zoological nomenclature and taxonomy is to simplify animal classification and recognition!
[To make matters even more bewildering: by the 1970s, some authors had begun lumping together what until then had still been M. pygmaea from the Old World and M. rixosa from the New World, thereby creating what was now a circumpolar species. Very confusingly, however, instead of being given a new common name and a new taxonomic name (which would have made much more sense), this composite circumpolar species became referred by its New World component's names, i.e. as the least weasel M. rixosa. Also claimed as a separate species back then was the dwarf weasel M. minuta, smaller than the common weasel and native to parts of continental Europe but not the British Isles… but enough of taxonomic turmoil, time to move on, I think!]
Anyway, if even the scientific naming of creatures is far from immune to introducing confusion where only clarity should reign, how much more so when we turn our attention to local, non-scientific names, as exemplified once again by some ostensibly mystifying monikers of the mustelid variety.
Take, for instance, the so-called cane weasel. Also known variously as the miniver, mouse hound, or mousehunt, this cryptic carnivoran was once firmly believed in by many rural folk from southern England, who claimed that it was a discrete, second species of native weasel, one that was even smaller than M. nivalis. Gamekeepers vehemently attested to the reality of this minuscule mustelid, yet no specimens were ever submitted to museums or other scientific establishments for formal examination, and eventually this curious notion of a second British weasel species simply faded away. In a short but succinct 'Nature Note' article in London's Daily Telegraph newspaper for 6 January 1996, previously-mentioned British zoologist Dr Robert Burton offered three suggestions for the erstwhile belief in the cane weasel.
Firstly: M. nivalis is a noticeably variable species in terms of size, which is what had influenced the former taxonomic delineation of M. pygmaea and M. rixosa as separate species in the first place. Moreover, adult female specimens of M. nivalis can often be considerably smaller than adult males. Consequently, it would be easy for zoologically-untrained observers to spy smaller than average female specimens and wrongly assume that they must constitute a very diminutive separate species in their own right.
Secondly: M. nivalis produces two litters in a year. Consequently, it is possible that the so-called cane weasels are actually the tiny offspring of the first litter, which breed before they are full grown in size.
Thirdly: alternatively, it may be that the offspring of late-produced second litters of M. nivalis pass the winter at less than adult size and it is these overwintering under-sized specimens that have given rise to the cane weasel notion among rural observers.
Another English belief in a distinct, smaller than normal weasel species originates in the southwestern county of Cornwall, and concerns the so-called whitnick. According to Cornish language and dialect sources that I have consulted, generally speaking 'whitnick' is simply a local name for M. nivalis. However, on 31 March 1964, a short letter written by Cornish reader S.M. Lanyon that was published in the then-weekly, now long-defunct British magazine Animals enquired whether the whitnick may be something much more interesting and special.
In his letter, Lanyon, based in St Ives, Cornwall, stated that the whitnick is claimed locally to be a cross between a weasel and a stoat, to be plentiful around there, and to have always been so. But was such a creature real, or just a Cornish story, Lanyon wondered. Back then, the editor of Animals was none other than the highly-acclaimed naturalist and pioneering wildlife film maker Armand Denis, who responded personally to Lanyon's letter, Denis's reply being published directly underneath it.
Like Burton would mention many years later in his own above-noted Daily Telegraph article, Denis referred first of all to the noticeable size disparity between the two sexes in M. nivalis (i.e. females being smaller than males). He then speculated that whereas 'cane weasel' appeared to be a special name given to the smaller, female sex of M. nivalis in Kent and Sussex, in Cornwall it was the larger, male sex of this same species that had been given a special name – whitnick – because the possibility that this cryptic creature was genuinely a hybrid of M. nivalis and the much bigger M. erminea seemed highly unlikely. And indeed, I have never uncovered any information concerning verified crossbreeds of these two species, despite having searched diligently during the many years that have passed since I first read Lanyon's letter and Denis's reply to it.
Finally: many years ago once again, I discovered this last snippet of unexpected information relating to weasels and weasel nomenclature in an equally unexpected source. Namely, Africa-based naturalist Peter Turnbull-Kemp's book The Leopard (1967), which I consulted when researching my own, very first book, Mystery Cats of the World (1989) – now republished in expanded, updated form as Mystery Cats of the World Revisited (2020). Here is the snippet in question, in which Turnbull-Kemp recalled an interesting memory from his childhood spent in England:
I myself can remember being warned as a boy against the risks in meeting supposed troops or packs of "bloodthirsty" weasels – known in my part of England by the rather attractive name of Dandy-hounds. Such "dangerous packs were only in evidence in times of extremely hard weather, and rare parties of weasels did in fact appear on rare occasions under such conditions. Needless to say, they were sometimes bold from hunger and possibly with curiosity, but utterly harmless.
I had previously been familiar with the longer term 'devil's dandy hounds', which is one of several referring to the supernatural, spectral hell hounds that according to various stories of British folklore accompany either the devil or the horned hunter Herne during the Wild Hunt. However, I had not previously encountered it in relation to weasels – nor indeed for that matter had I hitherto known about the notion of weasels forming hunting packs during harsh conditions.
Despite Turnbull-Kemp's reassurance that these musteline dandy hounds were totally harmless to humans, however, I subsequently read elsewhere a lurid account of a farm labourer that had allegedly been set upon one snowy, winter's evening by a savage swarm of these mini-mustelids, which he frantically warded off using his cart whip. Also of note is a supposed true-life story graphically entitled 'Weasels Ripped My Flesh!', published in the September 1956 issue of Man's Life (a long-since-defunct American men's action/adventure magazine), and the subject of that issue's eye-popping full-colour front cover painting by Wil Hulsey. However, although presented as the first-hand account of a man who had been attacked by a ferocious weasel pack after lying in wait to discover what had killed 90 ducks in just two nights at his Connecticut farm, and credited to a Mike Kamens, this was actually pulp fiction written under a pseudonym.
Happily, investigations of mine into the reality or otherwise of dandy hound packs duly revealed that such claims are baseless, nothing more than yet another example of weasel-inspired whimsy. In fact, M. nivalis is a very active but solitary hunter, although sometimes an adult female will be encountered chaperoning her offspring on training forays (the adult male playing no part in their rearing or training). Sadly, Turnbull-Kemp offered no sources or additional information to substantiate his claim that rare parties of weasels do occur occasionally during times of extremely hard weather.
Incidentally, the fact that weasels apparently do not hunt in packs at any time has not stopped the creation of several totally superfluous – and very silly-sounding – collective terms for this species (what is it with the bizarre compulsion to create inane collective terms for animals, even ones that by nature are solitary – other than to bamboozle ardent quizzers??). These include not only a pack but also a gang, a boogie, and even a confusion of weasels, the last-mentioned example being particularly apt, or ironic, given the circumstances!
In summary: intriguing and memorable though they may be, the multi-named Kentish cane weasel (aka miniver aka mouse hound aka mousehunt), the crossbred Cornish whitnick, and the dread droves of dandy hounds must all be relegated to the intangible realms of England's fascinating but entirely folkloric fauna.
If you would like to learn more about the
legendary 'Weasels Ripped My Flesh!' story and its fascinating link to equally
celebrated music megastar Frank Zappa, please click here
to read an article by my longstanding Facebook friend Bob Deis, present on his Menspulpmags
website. Bob has also included a reproduction of the original published version
of it in his wonderful compilation of 22 classic stories from American men's
pulp magazines, entitled – what else? – Weasels Ripped My
Also, make sure that you check out Bob's fascinating compilation of cryptozoology-themed stories and reports from American men's pulp magazines – Cryptozoology Anthology: Strange and Mysterious Creatures in Men's Adventure Magazines.
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