MINK, a name for certain large species of the zoological genus Putorius (Polecat), distinguished by slight structural modifications and semi-aquatic habits. The two best-known species, so much alike in size, form, colour and habits that, although they are widely separated geographically, some zoologists question their specific distinction, are P. lutreola, the Nörz or Sumpfotter (marsh-otter) of eastern Europe, and P. vison, the mink of North America. The former inhabits Finland, Poland and the greater part of Russia, though not found east of the Ural Mountains. Formerly it extended westward into central Germany, but it is now very rare, if not extinct, in that country. The latter is found in places which suit its habits throughout the whole of North America. Another form, P. sibiricus, from eastern Asia, of which much less is known, appears to connect the true minks with the polecats.
The name may have originated in the Swedish maenk applied to the European animal. Captain John Smith, in his History of Virginia (1626), at p. 27 speaks of “ Martins, Powlecats, Weesels and Minkes,” showing that the animal must at that time have been distinguished by a vernacular appellation from its congeners. By later authors, as Lawson (1709) and Pennant (1784), it is often written “ Minx.” For the following description, chiefly taken from the American form (though almost equally applicable to that of Europe) we are mainly indebted to Dr Elliott Coue’s Fur-bearing Animals of North America, 1877.
In size it much resembles the English polecat—the length of the head and body being usually from 15 to 18 in., that of the tail to the end of the hair about 9 in. The female is considerably smaller than the male. The tail is bushy, but tapering at the end. The ears are small, low, rounded, and scarcely project beyond the adjacent fur. The pelage consists of a dense, soft, matted under fur, mixed with long, stiff, lustrous hairs on all parts of the body and tail. The gloss is greatest on the upper parts; on the tail the bristly hairs predominate. Northern specimens have the finest and most glistening pelage; in those from southern regions there is less difference between the under and over fur, and the whole pelage is coarser and harsher. In colour different specimens present a considerable range of variation, but the animal is ordinarily of a rich dark brown, scarcely or not paler below than on the general upper parts; but the back is usually the darkest, and the tail is nearly black. The under jaw, from the chin about as far back as the angle of the mouth, is generally white. In the European mink the upper lip is also white, but, as this occasionally occurs in American specimens, it fails as an absolutely distinguishing character. Besides the white on the chin, there are often other irregular white patches on the under parts of the body. In very rare instances the tail is tipped with white. The fur is important in commerce.
The principal characteristic of the mink in comparison with its congeners is its amphibious mode of life. It is to the water what the other weasels are to the land, or martens to the trees, being as essentially aquatic in its habits as the otter, beaver, or musk-rat, and spending perhaps more of its time in the water than it does on land. It swims with most of the body submerged, and dives with perfect ease, remaining long without coming to the surface to breathe. It makes its nests in burrows in the banks of streams, breeding once a year about the month of April, and producing five or six young at a birth. Its food consists of frogs, fish, fresh-water molluscs and crustaceans, as well as mice, rats, musk-rats, rabbits and small birds. In common with the other animals of the genus, it has a very peculiar and disagreeable effluvium, which, according to Dr Coues, is more powerful, penetrating and lasting than that of any animal of the country except the skunk. (W. H. F.)