The Least Weasel may be cute, but it's a killer.
As predators go, the least weasel may not be one to strike terror in the hearts of men. Not that it isn’t a fierce and determined hunter. With sharp claws and sharper teeth, it makes short work of its next meal with a bite to the base of the skull, and it is readily capable of dispatching prey several times its size, consuming about half its body weight in freshly killed meat every day.
But for all that, the least weasel is a diminutive and—dare I say it?—beguiling bit of fluff. Fully grown, a male least weasel in fighting trim is less than 10 inches long from nose to tail-tip and weighs in at under 3 ounces, and the females are typically even smaller. With neat, rounded ears, sleek body, delicate feet and large black eyes, the least weasel looks like a regular-sized weasel that accidentally got washed on the “hot” cycle.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Virginia’s smallest carnivore.
“They really are tiny,” muses Dr. John Pagels, professor emeritus of biology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Smaller and far more slender than a chipmunk, the least weasel “is like a cigar with a head and legs,” says Pagels.
“They are thin all the way through and very good at getting into, turning around, and backing up in very small spaces,” he says.
Their size and flexibility allow least weasels to slip into the burrows of their favored prey—small rodents like mice and voles—and their voracious appetites mean that they can play a significant role in controlling rodent populations over a surprisingly large territory. An adult male least weasel can maintain a home range of as much as five acres, and, despite their small size, least weasels can move with remarkable speed, are quite aggressive, and will take on prey that well outweigh them. On the Internet, you can find more than one video of a least weasel subduing a rat twice its size, and an article from the Nature Conservancy claims they will even chase down a rabbit—an important food source in the spring when small rodents can be scarce on the ground.
“They are very active, night and day,” says Pagels, “and if they see something they may go after it.”
Nevertheless, your chances of spotting a least weasel aren’t great. For one thing, they’re small—really small—and they tend to blend well with their natural surroundings; in Virginia their year-round coat remains brown with a white neck and underbelly. But the least weasel’s North American range extends to within the Arctic Circle, and where snow is frequent, the fur changes to white in winter.
They’re also a live-fast-and-die-young species. Although in captivity a least weasel has lived as long as 10 years, in the wild most don’t live past their second birthday, and many fail to survive to their first. When you have to devour half your body weight in food every day, longevity is going to depend upon a steady and abundant supply of prey. And, being rodent-sized, least weasels are themselves vulnerable to being picked off by predators like owls, hawks and—pet owners take note—likely house cats as well.
To combat these grim survival stats, least weasels can produce two litters a year, and they are highly adaptable to different environments, from Russian steppes to Virginia fields. Thus, despite the odds against them, these dollop-sized carnivores are believed to be holding their own—though admittedly, researching least weasel populations appears to be something of a challenge. In Virginia, least weasels are known to inhabit the western half of the state, although one has been found as far east as Caroline County, suggesting that they may inhabit the Piedmont region as well. But with their solitary habits and large territories, even when you’re looking for them, they aren’t that easy to find.
“They are relatively uncommon even when they are common,” says Pagels. “People just don’t run across them that much.”
But what if you do see one? Just be thankful you’re not a field mouse.