Mustela lutreola 

Scope: Global
Language: English

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Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family
Animalia Chordata Mammalia Carnivora Mustelidae

Scientific Name: Mustela lutreola (Linnaeus, 1761)
Regional Assessments:
Common Name(s):
English European Mink
French Vison d'Europe
Spanish Visón Europeo
Viverra lutreola Linnaeus, 1761
Taxonomic Source(s): Wozencraft, W.C. 2005. Order Carnivora. In: D.E. Wilson and D.M. Reeder (eds) Mammal Species of the World: A taxonomic and geographic reference. Third Edition., pp. 532–628. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
Taxonomic Notes: The species occasionally hybridizes with Western Polecat Mustela putorius (Tumanov and Abramov 2002, Ternovsky 1977, Davidson et al. 2000, Cabria et al. 2011). Both hybridisation and genetic introgression occur at low levels (3% and 0.9% respectively) and the hybridization is asymmetric, as only pure Polecat males mate with pure European Mink females. Backcrossing and genetic introgression has been detected only from female first-generation (F1) hybrids of European Mink with Polecats (Ternovsky 1977). Hybridization and genetic introgression between the two species can be considered a rather uncommon event (Cabria et al. 2011).

The western populations (Spain and France) have very low genetic variability and the southern population slightly higher genetic variability, whilst the eastern populations have the greatest variability (Lodé 1999, Davidson et al. 2000, Michaux et al. 2004, 2005; Cabria 2009).

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Critically Endangered A3ce ver 3.1
Year Published: 2016
Date Assessed: 2015-03-03
Assessor(s): Maran, T., Skumatov, D., Gomez, A., Põdra, M., Abramov, A.V. & Dinets, V.
Reviewer(s): Schipper, J. & Duckworth, J.W.
Contributor(s): Palazón, P., Saveljev, A., Kranz, A., Libois, R. & Aulagnier, S.
This species is listed as Critically Endangered because of an ongoing population reduction. In the last ten years (a period exceeding three generations) this is inferred to have resulted in the loss of over half the population, and it is predicted to intensify in the next ten years to result in a decline rate exceeding 80% because of habitat degradation/loss and the effects of introduced species, notably American Mink Neovison vison.
Previously published Red List assessments:

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:The historical range of the European Mink extended from Finland to east of the Ural Mountains, to northern Spain and the Caucasian Mountains (Novikov 1939, Heptner et al. 1967, Youngman 1990, Maran 2007). The relatively recent discovery of European Mink in France (1839) and in eastern Spain (1951) suggests late expansion of the species to the west (Youngman 1990, Michaux et al. 2005). However, over the last 150 years it has severely declined and been extirpated or greatly reduced over most of its former range (Maran 1999, 2007 and references therein).

The current range consists of a few isolated fragments: in northern Spain and western France, in the Danube delta in Romania, in Ukraine and Russia (Maran 2007 and references therein). In Estonia, the last wild individual was trapped in 1996. The establishment of an island population in Estonia started in 2000 and has resulted in a small breeding population of fewer than 100 individuals in Hiiumaa Island. The species is in decline even in its currently remaining range enclaves. Only Romania can, perhaps, be regarded as an exception. In Romania, the presence of the European Mink in Danube Delta was confirmed relatively recently (Gotea and Kranz 1999). The results of an IUCN mission in 2014 to Romania showed that the Danube delta population is clearly the most viable in the world: according to the assessment, the population in delta might be around 1,000 – 1,500 individuals. There is some information about the presence of the European Mink also in the Romanian Carpathians. In the Moscow region, the species was present in at least two locations until 1994 (Dinets 1995), but a snow-tracking survey of these locations found no European Minks in 1997 (V. Dinets pers. comm. 2015). In the Vologoda Region, considering the rapid decline of the species in the neighbouring regions and the presence of the American Mink, it is not likely that the European Mink populations will hold there for long. In the Arkhangelsk Region, a population seems to exist in the north-west of the region, which is close to the northern limit of the range, with very low abundance. The presence of the American Mink (Neovison vison) is likely to pose a serious threat to its long-term existence also there (Skumatov 2005, Maran 2007 and references therein). In 1981-1989, the European Mink was introduced to southern Kurile Islands (Kunashir, Iturup), Russia, far away from the native distribution range. This introduction was unsuccessful; no stable populations were established in these islands (A.V. Abramov pers. comm. 2014).

Michaux et al. (2005: 2382), concerning the low genetic diversity in French and Spanish populations, speculated as follows: “The almost complete lack of variation observed in French and Spanish animals strongly indicates that very few individuals established the present-day W European population, possibly following a human introduction”. This wording has been often misread, resulting in misleading statements about an alien origin of European Mink in Spain and in France (e.g. in Clavero 2013, Carbonell 2015). As Diez-Leon et al. (2014) argued, the very low level of genetic diversity in western population provides no scientific ground to conclude  that the European Mink is introduced by humans to Spain and France, and no other line of evidence suggests this.

It occurs from sea level to 1,120 m (Palazón et al. 2003).
Countries occurrence:
France; Romania; Russian Federation; Spain; Ukraine
Regionally extinct:
Austria; Belarus; Bulgaria; Croatia; Czech Republic; Finland; Georgia; Germany; Hungary; Kazakhstan; Latvia; Lithuania; Moldova; Montenegro; Netherlands; Poland; Serbia; Slovakia; Switzerland
Additional data:
Continuing decline in area of occupancy (AOO):Yes
Extreme fluctuations in area of occupancy (AOO):NoEstimated extent of occurrence (EOO) - km2:
Continuing decline in extent of occurrence (EOO):YesExtreme fluctuations in extent of occurrence (EOO):No
Continuing decline in number of locations:Yes
Extreme fluctuations in the number of locations:No
Upper elevation limit (metres):1120
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]

Population:Its range has reduced by over 85% since the mid-19th century. The remaining population is small, fragmented and declining. The most viable population in Western Europe is in the Danube Delta. The current European Mink range in Russia consists of isolated distant habitats patches of different size. These fragmented populations are scattered across western Russia, the Urals, and the northern Caucasus. The only parts of the range where the American Mink is absent are rivers in the Archangelsk Region and Komi Republic, and probably also in the Northern Caucasus. Everywhere else the populations of European Mink are vanishing or becoming increasingly fragmented and localised. The Russian population of European Mink has been estimated at about 20,000 (Tumanov 2003, 2006), but this is not based on quantitative data because no large-scale census has been undertaken. Hunting bags suggest that the European Mink is rapidly becoming less abundant compared with the American Mink: for instance, in Vologda and Kostroma regions, the proportion of European Mink skins in the hunting bag of the two mink species decreased from 50–70% to 1–10% within the 5–7 years to 2006. For the whole of Russia, recent records refer only to the capture of single individuals or to local populations consisting of some tens of individuals (Skumatov and Saveljev 2006). The number of 20,000 Minks in Russia is a clear and extensive overestimate of the present population size.

Because of intensive American Mink control measures since 2003, the population in Spain (in the Mediterranean basin) was quite stable until 2010-2011. The main part of the population is in the Ebro river basin. Remarkable fragmentation has been observed in Cantabric rivers in the north (Basque Country). In 2011-2014, the fragmentation of European Mink population was observed also in the upper Ebro River as a result of American Mink invasion into the area (Asun Gomez & Madis Põdra pers. comm. 2014). At the same time, a slight expansion of the range to south and south-east was observed in Aragon in Ebro River basin (Gomez et al. 2011).

The overwhelming majority of remaining populations are in decline and of low density. Therefore the size of the species's range leads to overestimation the population status. It is likely that the overall number of Mink declined more than 90% since the beginning of 20th century. Also, the presence of the American Mink in most of range fragments confuses the reports and makes the status projections to the future rather pessimistic.

Some national estimates of population abundance:
  • Spain: Fewer than 2,000 km of rivers occupied, probably near 500 individuals (Asun Gomez et al. in prep.).
  • France: status unknown, the latest data available date back to 2004, when the population was estimated to be around few hundred individuals. Might be nationally extinct by now.
  • Romania: Danube Delta: the best habitats for European Mink are the canals. There are around 3,500 km of canals there. European Mink is known to inhabit also the coasts of lagoons with total length of about 445 km, but will be found elsewhere. The estimated number of European Mink in the delta is 1,000-1,500 individuals. Carpathian Mountains: there is some evidence that a population of European Mink persists: 15 observations have been recorded since 1990 (Sandor Attila pers. comm. 2014).
  • Belarus: the species is considered to be extinct in two former small range fragments (V. Sidorovich pers comm. 2011).
  • Ukraine: the European Mink was recently re-discovered in Danube and Dniester deltas (de Jongh et al. 2007).
  • Russia: in most of the country's 61 regions (subcountry units) within the species's historical range it is extinct or believed to be extinct (40 regions, 66%). In seven regions the species is known to be extant, and in nine regions is believed still to survive. From those only in 12 regions is European Mink expected to survive for longer than 10 years. The American Mink is now present within the whole remaining range of the European Mink, although it may be absent or very scarce in Northern Caucasus and in the north - approximately 64°–66°N, 44°–52°E (near Timanskiy kriazh, to Arctic circle). The most recent evidence of European Mink (2010-2014) comes from Krasnodar Region (2013), Tver Region (2012), Kostroma Region (2013), Vologda Region (2011) and Arkhangelsk (2014). It is believed that European Mink might still be found in Ivanovo Region, Yaroslav Region and Stavropol Region. In Arkhangelsk Region, a trail camera caught mostly European Mink in 2010, while by 2014 the majority of animals caught by the trap were already American Mink.  The same applies to Komi Republic: in 2000 only European Mink was recorded, in 2011-2014 the American Mink became prevailing species.
  • Estonia: the last wild individual was trapped in 1996. Island population establishment started in 2000 and has resulted in a small breeding population of fewer than 100 individuals in Hiiumaa Island.
Current Population Trend:Decreasing
Additional data:
Continuing decline of mature individuals:Yes
Extreme fluctuations:NoPopulation severely fragmented:Yes

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology:European Mink has specialised habitat requirements. It is semi-aquatic, inhabiting densely vegetated banks of rivers, streams and sometimes, during the warm season, it may inhabit lake-banks. It is rarely found more than 100 meters away from fresh water. There are no records of its presence on sea coast. It hunts both in riparian zones and in the water for amphibians, crustaceans (crayfish), fish, small mammals, insects and birds (Sidorovich et al. 1998, Maran et al. 1998; Palazón et al. 2004, 2008). Females become mature for the next breeding season at 11 months (T. Maran unpublished).
Systems:Terrestrial; Freshwater
Continuing decline in area, extent and/or quality of habitat:Yes
Generation Length (years):2
Movement patterns:Not a Migrant

Use and Trade [top]

Use and Trade:

The species was largely in the fur trade during the first half of the 20th century. As of 2014, there are no data on present trade. The higher quality of farmed American Mink fur makes it highly unlikely that the trading could become an issue in European Mink conservation. Some recent illegal fur trade to neighbouring countries from Romania has stopped, because the fur-markets in these countries have crashed. It is still caught in small numbers in Russia by trappers hunting for American Mink.

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s): The decline and extinction of the European Mink cannot be explained with a single universal factor. The main factors operating the extinction have been (1) habitat loss, (2) over-exploitation and (3) impact of alien American Mink.

In the European continent, human activities have resulted in large-scale alteration of landscapes, which has had a substantial impact on various habitats and their species. The European Mink has proved to be sensitive to human-induced environmental change and disturbance. As the type and extent of human influence on the species and its biotope has varied in time and between regions in Europe, also the set of factors contributing to the extinction has varied.

Several factors have often been acting in concert with a cumulative effect. The course of decline during the first half of 20th century in central regions of Russia is a perfect illustration of this. There, the effect of over-exploitation was noticed almost throughout the entire European Mink range (this even resulted in a moratorium of hunting in several regions and even in reinforcement efforts in Yaroslavl Region, where around 130 European Minks were translocated with the hope to recover the original, depleted population). In addition, extensive change of habitats in the mid-20th century further contributed to the decline. Thereafter, the invasion of the American Mink posed a very serious threat to the native mink. Large-scale introductions of American Mink in Russia, first planned to be conducted only in regions outside the European Mink's natural range, were ultimately performed also inside the native mink range. The reason for this was twofold: (1) the original mink has become too scarce for the fur-trapping industry, (2) higher value of American Mink fur in the market (Pavlov and Korsakova 1973). In these times, the American Mink and European Mink were not regarded by the relevant authorities to be two distinct species. In the course of the introduction operation, 20,400 American Mink were released in the USSR until 1971, with around 4,000 of them being released into the range of the European Mink (Pavlov and Korsakova 1973). The intentional introduction of the alien species was strongly supported by rapidly developing mink fur-farming in the Soviet Union – escapees from farms formed a continuous source of new founders for introduction. American Mink farming started in the 1920s; in 1972, 1.9 million female American Minks were kept in fur-farms and in 1973, 4.9 million minks were raised in 146 farms in the former Soviet Union (Abramov 1974). As the native mink populations were small and highly fragmented by over-exploitation and habitat loss, the fur-farm escapees, being ecologically more flexible (Maran 1991) easily invaded into the freely available ecological niche, thus making it impossible for the depleted European Mink to recover. Even more, the remaining European Mink groups were an easy target for intra-guild aggression (Maran et al. 1991, 1998; Sidorovich et al. 1999, 2001). The magnitude of the effect of mink farming on the native mink is well illustrated by a recent study in Denmark (a country with a very high number of mink farms), which concludes that 86% of free-living American Minks are escapees from farms (Hammershoj et al. 2005).

Local key factors have changed with time also in many other countries. For instance the impact of over-hunting and/or habitat change weakened the populations and accelerated the impact of the subsequent spread of the American Mink and/or the impact of other factors. It might well be that sometimes the interchange of key factors in time and/or the concurrent impact of several factors has led to a synergistic effect on the European Mink. Further, the time from the introduction of the threat to the extinction of the species can be highly variable, resulting in the so-called extinction or decline lag (Baillie et al. 2004). This, along with the interwoven effect of numerous factors, is likely to result in situations when it is hard or, in some cases, even impossible to identify the actual causes behind the extinction process.

The role of the alien American Mink deserves a special attention. Its role has been noted in several reports as a secondary or unimportant factor, usually emphasising that the decline of the European Mink started before the invasion of American Mink (Lodé 2002, Lodé et al. 2001, Rozhnov 1992, Schubnikova 1982). Still, there are several records of local extinction of the European Mink concurrent with rapid expansion of the American Mink, e.g., in Estonia, Tver Region in Russia, Basque country (Zadorra river basin and Cantabric rivers in Bizkaia province) in Spain, Belarus (Maran 1991, Sidorovich 1991, 1993; Katchanovsky 2002, Palazón et al. 2002, 2004; Põdra et al. 2013, Zuberogoitia et al. 2013, A Gomez pers. comm, 2014). The former range of European Mink included a number of large nature reserves where habitat alteration and hunting were minimal or absent (Maran et al, 1998, Maran 1992). Further, although there are 'time-shot' records on the co-existence of the two mink species, no records demonstrating long-term sympatric coexistence of the two mink species have been found. Numerous records reveal the local replacement of the European Mink with the American Mink, but no opposite events have been reported. Records on replacement of the European Mink with the American Mink are further supported by studies of behavioural interactions between the two mink species in the wild and well as in experimental conditions. All this evidences that the American Mink has played a special role in the demise of the European Mink. While most of the other agents which have been operating the extinction are relatively easy to stop by conventional conservation management, there is very little one can do to prevent the spread of the alien American Mink. This means that the presence of the American Mink in wide territories across Europe makes the efforts for species recovery a very complicated task.

A new complication is the rising trend for private individuals in France to keep American Mink as a pet.

In addition to the main factors behind the decline of European Mink populations, a number of other factors may pose local threat the remaining small populations, like hybridisation, road casualties, Aleutian disease and secondary poisoning.

Habitat loss and degradation is still a serious threat especially in western populations, both in France and in Spain (mostly in Cantabric rivers).

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions: European Mink is legally protected in all range states (Schreiber et al. 1989). In the Russian Federation only the Caucasian subspecies, M. lutreola turovi, is Red listed (Red Data book of Russian Federation 2001). At least part of the population occurs within protected areas. 

The following conservation actions are ongoing as of in 2014:
  1. General: conservation breeding programme in the form of European Mink EEP programme with about 250 minks in captivity is on-going since 1992. The programme is coordinated by Tallinn Zoological Gardens and Foundation Lutreola (Estonia). IUCN SSC has sent a letter of concern over the deteriorating status of the European Mink in the EU to the European Commission in 2013. No actions resulted from this letter.
  2. Spain: (a) conservation breeding programme since 2004, (b) pilot reinforcement in 2008-2010 in Alava, (c) special programme to control American Mink within and around of the European Mink range is on-going, (d) monitoring of European Mink in different autonomous communities as La Rioja (2007 and 2011), Alava (2007, 2009) and Aragon (2008, 2009, 2010, 2012), Navarra 2004-2005, (e) habitat restoration in Navarra (EU LIFE project), (f) road casualties study in La Rioja (2007), studies on the effect of road casualties, population dynamics. In 2014 the EU LIFE project was started for five years with the aim to establish an American Mink control and monitoring system in Basque Country, La Rioja, Aragon and Valencia Authomous Communities.
  3. France: in 2010 a government programme for conservation breeding and reintroduction was started for six years. In 2014 a special breeding facility for European Mink was constructed. The overall aim of the facility remains unclear.
  4. Germany: (a) conservation breeding programme in Osnabrück managed by Association Euronerz under European Mink EEP program, (b) two reintroduction programmes: in Saarland (since 2006) and at Steinhuder Meer, Lower Saxony (since 2010). In Steinhuuder Meer there is some indication about possible presence of small population.
  5. Estonia: (a) establishment of island population in Island Hiiumaa (Dagö) since 2000. At present a small breeding core population exists in the islands; (b) studies on reproductive physiology of the species; studies one survival and adaptation of the species in reintroduction programmes, studies on genetics, studies on the impact of captive conditions to the stress of mink; (c) regular monitoring of the results of establishment of island population in Hiiumaa; (d) habitat improvement actions.
  6. Romania: (a) since 2001 regular monitoring has been conducted in Danube delta, (b) in 2011, the strategic plan for European Mink conservation was elaborated in the European Mink handbook for the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve (Marinov et al. 2011)
Studies have been undertaken to determine European Mink's ecological requirements, to analyse the causes of its decline, and to assess the genetic variability, the survival of released captive-born European Mink. New studies have been launched to study reproductive physiology, impact of captive conditions, options for artificial insemination, effect of behavioural personality types in mink to conservation breeding and reintroduction. There is an urgent need for species action plan in European Union for European Mink for better collaboration between different on-going conservation activities. Clearly national and regional authorities need to increase attention and allocate sufficient and continued resources for European Mink conservation, otherwise this species will disappear soon. There is a need for large-scale coordinated efforts to secure the survival of the last small remaining populations in different areas inside of the historical range of the species, but also restoration and/or establishment of new populations is required. 

Conservation breeding of the species needs all-European coordination so that all single-country initiatives collaborate. The current tendency for isolated one-country breeding efforts leads to ineffective use of resources and of competence, and also to the inability to reach a captive population size sufficient to maintain genetic diversity in captivity. For remaining in situ populations, the maintenance or restoration of sufficiently large areas of suitable habitats has to be secured by designation of new protected areas and improvement of management of existing protected areas.

The impact of the American Mink on local European Mink populations has to be monitored and controlled, and whenever possible and feasible the alien mink populations should be removed. Local authorities have to pay more attention to the effects of the American Mink on the local fauna, including the European Mink. They should support further studies and actions to mitigate the effect of alien mink to the native mink species. For example, intensive control of American Mink is on-going in Spain since 2003. More than 5,500 American Minks have been eradicated around and inside the European Mink distribution area. It is likely that without such a control of alien mink the native mink population in Spain would have vanished already (Gomez and Palazon pers. comm.). A recent boom in the mink-farm industry driven by increased market in China combined with the prohibition of mink-farming in several European countries has resulted in increasing interest in establishment of mink farms including in sites in or close to remaining European Mink areas, such as in Spain and in Romania.

For French and Spanish wild populations which appear to be highly inbred, further research needs to be carried out to identify whether these seemingly genetically highly uniform populations suffer from inbreeding depression. The introduction of individuals from ex situ stock from genetically diverse eastern populations has to be considered as a potential conservation measure, if further research confirms the need for this. In addition to genetic studies, comparative studies on ecology and behaviour of the disjunct mink populations (Spanish/French, Romanian and eastern European) should also be conducted to support the findings of genetic studies. The ex situ conservation breeding programme has to be enhanced and promoted, as it guarantees the survival of the species in case in situ efforts temporarily fail. It also provides opportunities for the restoration of already vanished wild populations and reinforcement of existing populations whenever needed. Better coordination between different ex situ actions over political borders is needed. Special studies have to be conducted to find the most feasible way how to incorporate the western low-variability populations into the joint programme with the high-diversity eastern population. 

There is also a need for developing an all-European conservation breeding programme with secured long-term funding. Further studies are needed about the current status of the European Mink in Romania, Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere in the eastern part of Europe.

Citation: Maran, T., Skumatov, D., Gomez, A., Põdra, M., Abramov, A.V. & Dinets, V. 2016. Mustela lutreola. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T14018A45199861. . Downloaded on 21 September 2018.
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