The marten Martes americana, a small
predator, is a member of the weasel family, Mustelidae. It is similar in
size to a small cat but has shorter legs, a more slender body, a bushy
tail, and a pointed face. The fur varies from pale yellowish buff to dark
blackish brown. During winter, the marten has a beautiful dark brown fur
coat and a bright orange throat patch. The summer coat is lighter in colour
and not nearly as thick. Males are the larger sex and weigh about 1 000
g, whereas females weigh about 650 g.
The Mustelidae family also includes
several other more familiar animals such as the ermine, skunk, and mink.
It is thought that martens entered North America from Asia about 60 000
years ago. There are several species of martens worldwide and perhaps the
most famous is the Russian sable, which is well known for its luxurious
Signs and sounds
In winter, the soles of a marten’s
feet are covered with fur and the toes are not distinguishable in the tracks.
Tracks are about 3.7 cm long and form two ovals that overlap by about one
third. This happens because martens travel with a loping sort of gait,
and the hind feet land in the tracks left by the front feet. Loping is
common among mustelids, and it takes some practice to be able to distinguish
the tracks of the various species.
Habitat and habits
Martens prefer old growth coniferous
or mixed woods forest, although they may seek food in some open areas.
However, the amount of undisturbed forest is continually diminishing, and
new-growth forests do not support as many marten as the original forest
did. In northern Ontario, for example, the density of marten in forests
logged 10 to 50 years ago is only 10 to 30 percent of the number in uncut
areas. Loss of habitat has contributed in a major way to the decline in
abundance of this species in North America. There is some indication that
martens may tolerate partial logging of their habitat, but this needs more
study and a cooperative multiple use management program for forested lands.
The marten is a solitary animal. Adults
will maintain living areas—called home ranges—by keeping out other members
of the same sex while tolerating members of the opposite sex. Males and
females spend time together only during the mating season. Home ranges
vary in size with changes in both the marten population and the abundance
of food. When food is abundant a male’s range is about 3.5 km; if food
is scarce this size may double. Females require only about half the area
needed by males. Home ranges in logged areas are also much larger than
those in uncut forest.
Marten hunt at all times of the day
in spring and summer and are most active at daybreak and dusk. During these
seasons they are active for about 16 hours a day. Females with young in
the den are only active during the day for about six to eight hours. As
the temperatures drop, marten are increasingly less active at night. During
the coldest months they may hunt for only a few hours in the warmest part
of the day. If the weather turns stormy and very cold they may even den
up for several days.
Curious and excitable, martens hunt
by investigating underneath downed trees and stumps, inside hollow trees,
and in dense clumps of young conifers. In winter, they are known to hunt
beneath the snow in tunnels created by red squirrels or under snow-covered
logs. Loggers often see them near their camps, and a stolen lunch bag is
not unheard of. The marten exemplifies the curiosity, ferocity, and lightning-fast
reflexes of the weasel family.
Most people who have studied martens
have noted that they are not fond of water. However, swimming martens have
been seen, although they travelled only a short distance.
A century ago martens were common
in the extensive forests that covered much of North America. Unfortunately,
land clearing and trapping have taken their toll, so that today the species
has been eliminated from much of the southern portion of its former range.
Martens no longer occur in Prince Edward Island and were eliminated from
but later reintroduced into Nova Scotia and several American states. They
are classified as an “endangered” species in Newfoundland and Labrador,
where they have had protected status since 1934. Elsewhere, they occur
in forested areas of central and northern Canada, the northern United States,
and southwards in the Rocky Mountains.
The marten is often described as an
"arboreal predator," but this is inaccurate. The misconception probably
arose from the fact that martens are seen in trees where they have climbed
to escape an intruder. Martens are agile climbers but take almost all their
prey on the ground. They have an extremely varied diet and are classed
as generalized predators; that is, they will eat whatever they can catch.
Mostly they feed on red-backed voles, deer mice, field voles, varying hare,
grouse, squirrels, and shrews. They are also known to take birds’ eggs
and amphibians and make extensive use of berries, especially raspberries
Male and female martens spend time
together only during the mating season in late July and early August. The
female rears the young alone. Litter size is reported to range from two
to six but is most often three, and the young are born in March or April,
eight or nine months after mating.
This is an abnormally long gestation,
or pregnancy, period for a small mammal and results from a phenomenon known
as delayed implantation. After mating and fertilization, development of
the embryo stops at a very early stage. Implantation into the uterus wall
does not take place until February. Delayed implantation occurs in several
other members of the Mustelidae family as well.
The young are born in a den, usually
located inside a hollow tree. At birth, they weigh about 30 g, are blind,
and are covered with a very fine fur. The female nurses the young well
into the summer, spending little time away from the den until the young
leave with her in June or July. Raising the young is an extremely energy-demanding
task, and the female may lose considerable weight during this period. The
kits apparently stay with their mother until late August or September,
when they disperse. Females may breed in their first year, but most do
not breed until they are two years old. Males are probably not capable
of breeding until their second year either.
Marten have few natural enemies, but
other mammalian predators, as well as hawks and owls, have been recorded
as preying upon an unwary marten. Marten populations are probably limited
by the amount of food available. That is, as natural factors such as disease
and lack of food reduce the populations of the species they prey on, marten
populations also decline. The great enemy of marten is the human being,
and overtrapping has occurred in the past.
Pelts of marten are marketed as Canadian
or American sable and generally command a high price. It was this high
price that led, in part, to drastic declines in the numbers of marten since
European colonization of North America. Annual harvests of over 100 000
martens were common in the mid-1800s. Trapping pressure was so heavy that
martens were extirpated from many forested areas.
It became necessary to place martens
and other furbearers under strict regulation to allow populations to recover.
Even so, this was not always sufficient, and restocking programs had to
be initiated. Many of these have been successful, and trapping on a limited
basis has begun again in some formerly depleted areas. In the 1983–84 season,
over 150 000 martens were taken by trappers in Canada, and recent levels
are the highest ever recorded. This does not mean that martens are now
extremely abundant, but more likely that as forests have become increasingly
accessible because of more roads and improved bush vehicles, marten are
now regularly trapped in areas that were previously harder to reach.
Efforts have been made to raise martens
on fur farms, as has been done successfully for foxes, mink, lynx, and
a few other species. Martens are difficult to raise and so far little success
has been achieved.
Management of this species is especially
difficult because there is no easy and inexpensive way to census a marten
population. Experience has shown that if sufficient breeding stock exists
in areas where there is no trapping, dispersal of martens into surrounding
areas where trapping does occur may help trapped populations rebuild, if
trapping pressure is reduced. However, if there is easy access to a tract
of land, such as that provided by forest access roads, then overtrapping
can occur and a population can be rebuilt only if trapping is curtailed
entirely for several years.
A registered trapline system, such
as in Ontario, provides a biologist with some opportunity to control trapping
pressure. Because logging has been a factor in marten declines in the past,
it is urgent that land managers recognize the need for multiple use of
forested areas. The biologist, forester, and land planner must work in
closer cooperation to manage all resources simultaneously.