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Distinct ermine species identified in Southeast Alaska

Published: Apr. 13, 2021 at 4:41 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Genetic analysis has led to the discovery of a distinct type of weasel unique to southeast Alaska and western Canada.

Prince of Wales Island is the home of this newly identified kind of weasel, called the Haida Ermine.

The process of identifying the distinct species of ermine involved nearly 10 years of genetic analysis.

According to Dr. Jocelyn Colella, Incoming Curator of Mammals at University of Kansas, “We decided to sequence the whole genome, so all the DNA of a bunch of weasels - but genomes are really expensive so we were only able to sequence one whole genome from each population, and when we looked at that it was really cool. We had no idea that this island population may be a hybrid, so it was this mixture of this old world population from Eurasia and this new world population from North America.”

But the genome wasn’t enough. Samples had to be taken from the source, which involves physically trapping the ermine. “Getting samples of weasels from islands is hard,” Colella said.

This ermine species is different from others because of its unique environment. Colella explained, “They may be eating something different. They’re obviously living in a different environment, so they have a completely different evolutionary trajectory than the weasels that are found on the mainland.”

Now that Colella is finishing up her work with ermines, she’s moving on to a new group of weasels. “We’ve looked at ermines, which are the little weasels, now we’ll look at martens, which are a little bit bigger,” she said.

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