By Richard Hoath
Talk of wild carnivores normally gets people thinking of Lions on the Serengeti in pursuit of hapless wildebeest, Wolf packs chasing down Caribou in the arctic tundra or Jaguars in some Amazonian jungle. But we have one of the most successful, and pound for pound powerful, natural predators here on the AUC Campus. And I am not talking about the cats.
The Least Weasel Mustela nivalis, in Arabic Ersa (‘Irsa), is one of the world’s smallest carnivores at around 100g in weight and 40cm, body and tail, in length. And that is the larger male. It can readily be recognized by its tiny size and long, slender form, dark brown above and pale below, frequently irregularly patched and spotted. The tail is relatively short and slender. It is probably most familiar as the lithe furry cylinder seen scurrying across darkened streets and beneath parked cars around campus at night. Indeed I have seen it on Greek, Main and Falaki. And we should be pleased.
The Least Weasel, and others in its family, is unusual amongst the carnivores in actively hunting prey far larger than itself. In Europe the 100 gram Least Weasel preys on mammals up to the size of rabbits that can reach 2500g in weight – 25 times the Least Weasel’s own size. There are no rabbits on campus, the DDC shop apart, nor indeed at all in Egypt in the wild, so our Least Weasels will be living on mice and rats, most likely House Mice Mus musculus and House Rats Rattus rattus which like it or not share our downtown site. Labor is not split equally. The larger male Weasel will often take larger prey than the female that can be half the male’s size. This ensures a pair can take maximum advantage of prey species within their territory and not compete with each other.
Three other weasel species are found in Egypt. The black and white Libyan Striped Weasel Poecilictis libyca is found across the northern coastal desert to the western Delta. The similar Zorilla Ictonyx striatus is confined to a few records from the very south east of the country while the stunning Marbled Polecat Vormela peregusna is confined to north-eastern Sinai. All are active predators.
There is some controversy as to what the Least Weasel is doing in Egypt. Some experts argue that it was introduced, possibly by the Romans. They point to the fact that here it is almost entirely a commensal, only associated with mankind’s activity. Others point to its distribution over much of northern North Africa and the fact that this population is sufficiently distinct to warrant its own subspecies subpalmata and should thus be considered native. Indeed it is even given full species status by some authors as Mustela subpalmata the Egyptian Weasel.
Native or non-native we should all welcome this unobtrusive member of the urban community – unless you really like House Rats (definitely introduced). But then perhaps I shouldn’t be writing this as we have just entered the Chinese Lunar Year of the Rat!
Kingdon, Jonathan. The Kingdon Field Guide to the Mammals of Africa Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997.