Two squirrels in a wrestling match? At first, that’s what Marie Tessier of Bangor thought she was seeing as she stared at the moving ball of fur by the trail ahead of her. It was about 8 a.m. on Dec. 6, and she had been walking her dog in Prentiss Woods when the commotion caught her eye.
“Then I realized that instead of two squirrels, there was something white and a squirrel, and I was like, ‘Woah, what am I looking at here?’” Tessier recalled.
The white thing was an ermine, also known as a short-tailed weasel, and it was attacking a gray squirrel.
“I got some pictures of them from a distance as I watched them fight, and the squirrel ran up the tree with the ermine on its back,” Tessier said. “Then they came back down and rolled around on the ground some more.”
As Tessier stood watching the tussle, she realized that if she didn’t going soon, she was going to be late to work. So, with her dog, Molly, on a short leash, she continued her walk, passing close by the two combatting animals. Then, all the sudden, the ermine released the squirrel and ran into a nearby culvert.
“It went on the opposite side of the culvert to look at me,” said Tessier, who used her LG G5 smartphone to photograph the animal again. “I don’t really know where the squirrel went, but I bet he got the heck out of there.”
A frequent user of Bangor public trails, Tessier has experienced several wildlife sightings over the years. For example, a few years ago, she encountered a young black bear in the Bangor City Forest, and this past June, she came across four snapping turtles laying eggs by the Kenduskeag Stream during just one outing on the Kenduskeag Stream Trail.
But she’d never seen an ermine before.
Ermine are common throughout Maine and hunt both night and day, but people don’t often see this small animal because it’s well camouflaged, moves fast and tends to keep out of sight.
“The ermine itself is the most widespread carnivore,” Dr. Alessio Mortelliti, Assistant Professor in the University of Maine Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Conservation Biology. ‘It’s pretty much anywhere in the world, plus it’s an invasive species in some places, like New Zealand.”
Ermine are especially difficult to spot in the winter season, when their coat turns from brown to white, an adaptation that allows it to hide in the snow. The only thing that remains pigmented on an ermine is the tip of its tail, which is jet black.
“Most carnivores are just hard to see,” Mortelliti said. “Even here on campus we have a fisher cat that lives here, but nobody sees him.”
Mortelliti knows of the fisher’s presence because trail cameras on campus have captured photographs of the animal.
Like the fisher, the ermine is known for being especially ferocious and bold. Both predators have the ability to attack and kill prey that exceeds them in size and weight.
For example, it’s not uncommon at all for an ermine, with an average weight of 1.6 to 3.7 ounces, to attack a gray squirrel, which is much heavier, typically weighing between 12 and 24 ounces.
“Ermine are very aggressive,” said Mortelliti. “They can go for prey that is bigger than them.”
Ermine will also attack young rabbits and hares, Mortelliti said. But they prefer smaller prey such as mice and voles. In fact, one of the ermine’s key adaptations is their ability to manipulate its flexible body into small tunnels that are created by smaller animals.
Mortelliti hypothesized that it may be more difficult for ermine to find mice and voles during the winter, when these small rodents travel underneath the snow, and that may cause them to attack larger prey — such as squirrels — more often.
Nevertheless, Tessier feels lucky to have witnessed the tiny predator in action, and to have captured evidence of the event on her phone to share with others.