1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Marten

MARTEN,[1] a name originally belonging to the pine-marten (Mustela martes), but now applied to all members of the same genus of carnivorous mammals (see Carnivora). Martens are limited to the northern hemisphere, ranging throughout the greater part of the northern temperate regions of both Old and New Worlds, and southwards in America to 35° N. lat., while in Asia one species is met with in Java.

The species appear to be similar in their habits. They live in woods and rocky places, and spend most of their time in trees, although descending to the ground in quest of prey. They climb with great facility, and are agile and graceful in their movements. Some are said occasionally to resort to berries and other fruit for food, but as a rule they are carnivorous, feeding chiefly on birds and their eggs, small mammals, as squirrels, hares, rabbits and moles, but chiefly mice of various kinds, and occasionally snakes, lizards and frogs. In proportion to their size they are among the most bloodthirsty of animals, though less so than the weasels. The female makes her nest of moss, dried leaves and grass in the hollow of a tree, but sometimes in a hole among rocks or ruined buildings, and produces several young at a birth, usually from four to six. Though wild and untameable to a great degree if captured when fully grown, if taken young they are docile, and have frequently been made pets, not having the strong unpleasant odour of the smaller Mustelidae. The pine-marten appears to have been partially domesticated by the Greeks and Romans, and used to keep houses clear from rats and mice. In the same way, according to Brian Hodgson, the yellow-bellied weasel (Putorius kathia) “is exceedingly prized by the Nepalese for its service in ridding houses of rats. It is easily tamed; and such is the dread of it common to all murine animals that not one will approach a house where it is domiciled.” It is, however, to the great value attached to the pelts of these animals that their importance to man is chiefly due. Though all yield fur of serviceable quality, the commercial value varies immensely, not only according to the species from which it is obtained, but according to individual variation, depending upon age, sex, season, and other circumstances. The skins from northern regions are more full and of a finer colour and gloss than those from more temperate climates, as are those of animals killed in winter compared to the same individuals in summer. Fashion has, moreover, set fictitious values upon slight shades of colour. Enormous numbers of animals are caught, chiefly in traps, to supply the demand of the fur trade, Siberia and North America being the principal localities from which they are obtained.

With the exception of the pekan (M. pennanti), the martens are much alike in size, general colouring and cranial and dental characters. The following description by Dr Elliott Coues of the American marten (M. americana) will apply almost equally well to most of the others. “It is almost impossible to describe the colour of the marten, except in general terms, without going into the details of the endless diversities occasioned by age, sex, season, or other incidents. The animal is ‘brown,’ of a shade from orange or tawny to quite blackish; the tail and feet are ordinarily the darkest, the head lightest, often quite whitish; the ears usually have a whitish rim, while on the throat there is usually a large tawny-yellowish or orange-brown patch, from the chin to the fore legs; sometimes entire, sometimes broken into a number of smaller, irregular blotches, sometimes wanting, sometimes prolonged on the whole under surface, when the animal is bicolor like a stoat in summer. The general ‘brown’ has a greyish cast, as far as the under fur is concerned, and is overlaid with rich lustrous blackish-brown in places where the long bristly hairs prevail. The claws are whitish; the naked nose pad and whiskers are black. The tail occasionally shows interspersed white hairs, or a white tip.”

The following are the best-known species:—

Mustela foina: the beech-marten, stone-marten or white-breasted marten.—Distinguished from the following by the greater breadth of the skull, and some minute but constant dental characters, by the dull greyish-brown colour of the fur of the upper parts and the pure white of the throat and breast. It inhabits the greater part of the continent of Europe, but is more southern than the next in its distribution, not being found in Sweden or Norway.

M. martes, the pine-marten (see figure).—Fur rich dark brown; under fur reddish-grey, with clear yellow tips; breast spot usually yellow, varying from bright orange to pale cream-colour or yellowish-white. Length of head and body 16 to 18 in., of tail (including the hair) 9 to 12 in. This species is extensively distributed throughout northern Europe and Asia, and was formerly common in most parts of Great Britain and Ireland. It is still found in the northern counties of England and North Wales, but in decreasing numbers. In Scotland it is rare, but in Ireland may be found in almost every county occasionally. Though commonly called “pine-marten,” it does not appear to have any special preference for coniferous trees.

EB1911 - The Pine-Marten (Mustela martes).jpg
The Pine-Marten (Mustela martes).

Next comes M. zibellina, the sable (German, Zobel and Zebel; Swedish, sabel; Russian, sobel, a word probably of Turanian origin), which closely resembles the last, if indeed it differs except in the quality of the fur—the most highly valued of that of all the group. The sable is found chiefly in eastern Siberia.

Very distinct is the brilliantly coloured orange-and-black Indian marten (M. flavigula), found from the Himalaya and Ceylon to Java.

The North American M. americana is closely allied to the pine-marten and Asiatic sable. The importance of the fur of this animal as an article of commerce may be judged of from the fact that 15,000 skins were sold in one year by the Hudson’s Bay Company as long ago as 1743. It is ordinarily caught in wooden traps of simple construction, being little enclosures of stakes or brush in which the bait is placed upon a trigger, with a short upright stick supporting a log of wood, which falls upon its victim on the slightest disturbance. A line of such traps, several to a mile, often extends many miles. The bait is any kind of meat, a mouse, squirrel, piece of fish or bird’s head. It is principally trapped during the colder months, from October to April, when the fur is in good condition, as it is nearly valueless during the shedding in summer. It maintains its numbers partly in consequence of its shyness, which keeps it away from the abodes of men, and partly because it is so prolific, bringing forth six to eight young at a litter. Its home is sometimes a den under ground or beneath rocks, but oftener the hollow of a tree, and it is said to take possession of a squirrel’s nest, driving off or devouring the rightful proprietor.

The pekan or Pennant’s marten, also called fisher marten, though there appears to be nothing in its habits to justify the appellation, is the largest of the group, the head and body measuring from 24 to 30 in., and the tail 14 to 18 in. It is also more robust in form than the others, its general aspect being more that of a fox than a weasel; in fact its usual name among the American hunters is “black fox.” Its general colour is blackish, lighter by mixture of brown or grey on the head and upper fore part of the body, with no light patch on the throat, and unlike other martens generally darker below than above. It was generally distributed in wooded districts throughout the greater part of North America, as far north as Great Slave Lake, lat. 63° N., and Alaska, and extending south to the parallel of 35°; but at the present time is almost exterminated in the settled parts of the United States east of the Mississippi.  (W. H. F.) 

  1. By all old authors, as Ray, Pennant, Shaw and Fleming, the word is written “Martin,” but this form of spelling is now generally reserved for the bird (see Martin). The word, as applied to the animal here described, occurs in most Germanic and Romanic languages: German, marder; Dutch, marter; Swedish, mard; Danish, maar; English, marteron, martern, marten, martin and martlett; French, marte and martre; Italian, martora and martorella; Spanish and Portuguese, marta. Its earliest known use is in the form martes (Martial, Ep. x. 37), but it can scarcely be an old Latin word, as it is not found in Pliny or other classical writers, and Martial often introduced foreign words into his Latin. Its etymology has been connected with the German “martern,” to torment. A second Romanic name for the same animal is fuina, in French fouine. The term “Marten Cat” is also used.