status: Endangered, IUCN
range: Austria, Belarus, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Republic of Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Russian Federation, Slovakia, Spain, Ukraine
Description and biology
Minks belong to the weasel family, which also includes ermine, skunks, martens, wolverines, and otters. There are two types of mink within the family, the European and the American mink. The European mink, now very rare, is smaller than the American and has a wide white area around its mouth. European minks have blackish-brown to light-brown fur. They change their fur twice a year. Males weigh about 1.6 pounds (740 grams) and females weigh about 0.9 pound (440 grams). Minks live near water. They have partly webbed feet that aid them in swimming and diving. They are nocturnal (active at night) creatures that hunt on ground and under water for their food. Their diet consists of small mammals, birds, frogs, mollusks, crabs, fish, and insects. They have a keen sense of smell that helps in their hunting. European minks live in burrows taken from water voles or among the roots of trees.
European minks are solitary animals. Each mink has its own territory near a river or a stream, which it will defend from intruding members of its species. The minks check their borders regularly, marking them with their scent. Mating takes place in February and March each year, and after a five- to ten-week gestation (pregnancy) period females give birth to two to seven young in April or May. The females raise their offspring for the first three or four months of their lives. After that the offspring go off on their own. They are mature at about ten months old and they generally live about six years in the wild, and up to twelve years in captivity.
Habitat and current distribution
European minks live on the banks of fresh waterways, such as lakes, creeks, and rivers, where there is heavy vegetation (plant growth). Although the species was once common throughout Europe, today it exists mainly in parts of Russia and a few other Eastern European countries, where it is rapidly declining. A few small populations can be found in France and Spain. In 1997 there were an estimated 40,000 European mink in Eastern Europe and 100 to 1,000 in Western Europe. The species is extinct in much of its former habitat.
History and conservation measures
One of the reasons for the decline in the population of the European mink was the introduction of the American mink into its native regions. The American mink was imported into Europe in 1926 for fur farming. Some of the American population escaped into the wild, where it multiplied and rapidly spread throughout Europe. The American mink competed for food and shelter with the European mink.
Other causes of the decline of the species are the loss of natural habitat due to human settlement, hunting, and pollution. Since the 1990s, predictions of the extinction of the species have motivated numerous Eastern and Western European conservation efforts to preserve the European mink in the wild and to breed it in captivity. Crucial to the survival of the species is the conservation of its original habitats in Russia, France, Spain, Estonia, and Byelorussia, along with the creation of new habitats and conservation areas. Efforts are underway to get rid of the population of American mink in the wild in some European areas.