Mustela altaica 

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Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family
Animalia Chordata Mammalia Carnivora Mustelidae

Scientific Name: Mustela altaica
Species Authority: Pallas, 1811
Common Name(s):
English Altai Weasel, Mountain Weasel, Pale Weasel
Taxonomic Notes: The taxonomic position of Mustela altaica within the genus Mustela has long been debated (see Wozencraft 2005). Recent findings indicate it is phylogenetically close to Least Weasel M. nivalis (Abramov 2000, Kurose et al. 2000, Abramov et al. 2013). Intraspecific taxonomy has not yet been studied sufficiently. The subspecies from eastern Siberia (Transbaikalia, Russian Far East), M. a. raddei, is distinguished sharply from the other forms by its bright coloration

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Near Threatened ver 3.1
Year Published: 2016
Date Assessed: 2015-03-03
Assessor(s): Abramov, A.V.
Reviewer(s): Duckworth, J.W. & Schipper, J.
Contributor(s): Wozencraft, C, Wang, Y.
Altai Weasel is listed as Near Threatened because it is currently in significant decline (but probably at a rate of less than 30% over three generations [taken to be 15 years]) because of habitat conversion (over-grazing by livestock) through most of its range, and through agricultural control of its main prey genus (pikas Ochotona), thus making the species close to qualifying for Vulnerable. This species occurs mostly in a mountain meadows - themselves a threatened ecosystem within its range. The species's range also constitutes an area where recent climate change and predicted future change in climate could substantially reduce the habitat. These declines over the past three generations are projected to continue, through the same factors, for the next three.
Previously published Red List assessments:

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:Altai Weasel is found in central and east Asia, with a range comprising China; Pakistan; the Himalaya in India (Kashmir eastward to Arunachal Pradesh), Nepal and Bhutan; eastern Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Mongolia and parts of Russia (southern and south-eastern Siberia, Primorski Krai) (Wang 2003, Wozencraft 2005, Choudhury 2013, Bischof et al. 2014, Ghimirey and Acharya 2014). Ladakh, India, is often omitted from the range but it is found there regularly (Ben-Yehuda in prep.). The proximity of some records in Pakistan to Afghanistan (Bischof et al. 2014) suggests that it will also be found to occur in Afghanistan. It has been said to inhabit DPR Korea (Wozencraft 2005) but this appears to be based on a prediction, albeit a plausible one given the proximity of some records in China to Korea (Won and Smith 1999). 

This species's altitudinal use varies across its range. It is found in North-east India mostly from 1,500 to 4,500 m (Choudhury 2013). A recent series of records from Nepal was at 3,970-4,890 m, despite approximately equal search effort above and below 4,000 m (Ghimirey and Acharya 2014). On the Tibetan plateau, Hornskov and Foggin (2007) observed it over 2,300-4,700 m. Further north, it occurs down to the lowlands: in Kazakhstan it occurs from plain river valleys (340 m) up to 3,000 m in mountains of Dzhungar Alatau (Sludsky et al. 1982), whereas records from Russian Far East (the plains near Lake Khanka) are at elevations of about 80-100 m (A.V. Abramov pers. comm. 2014).
Countries occurrence:
Bhutan; China; India; Kazakhstan; Kyrgyzstan; Mongolia; Nepal; Pakistan; Russian Federation; Tajikistan
Additional data:
Continuing decline in area of occupancy (AOO):Unknown
Extreme fluctuations in area of occupancy (AOO):UnknownEstimated extent of occurrence (EOO) - km2:
Continuing decline in extent of occurrence (EOO):NoExtreme fluctuations in extent of occurrence (EOO):No
Continuing decline in number of locations:Yes
Extreme fluctuations in the number of locations:UnknownLower elevation limit (metres):80
Upper elevation limit (metres):4900
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]

Population:The species is common but not abundant throughout its range (e.g., Hornskov and Foggin 2007). Population density fluctuates depending on prey abundance by 4 or 5 times.
Current Population Trend:Decreasing
Additional data:
Continuing decline of mature individuals:Yes
Population severely fragmented:No
All individuals in one subpopulation:No

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology:Altai Weasel occurs only outside closed forest habitats, typically in alpine meadows and rocky slopes, dry steppes and plains, and river valleys with reeds and bushes (e.g., Heptner et al. 1967, Hornskov and Foggin 2007, Bischof et al. 2014, Ghimirey and Acharya 2014). It is also found in sparse forest vegetation and predominantly open landscape (Kruska 1990). It often occurs close to human settlements and agriculture (e.g,. Ghimirey and Acharya 2014). It is exclusively carnivorous, preying mainly upon pikas Ochotona, various rodents (voles, mice, hamsters), small birds, lizards, and insects (Pocock 1941). It is particularly dependent upon pikas across much of its range (Smith and Foggin 1999). The gestation period is 38-40 days, without delayed implantation. The litter size is 2-6, sometimes (in captivity) up to 13 (Sludsky et al. 1982). It is ground-dwelling, but climbing readily on rock-piles and fallen wood (e.g., Hornskov and Foggin 2007, Ghimirey and Acharya 2014). Despite some statements to the contrary, it is evidently diurnal across much or all of its range (e.g., Tibetan plateau, Hornskov and Foggin 2007; northern Pakistan, Bischof et al. 2014; Nepal, Ghimirey and Acharya 2014).
Continuing decline in area, extent and/or quality of habitat:Yes
Generation Length (years):5
Movement patterns:Not a Migrant

Use and Trade [top]

Use and Trade: In Nepal, and perhaps elsewhere in its range, mummified bodies are hung in houses as a perceived way of reducing the threat of death to newborn human babies (Ghimirey and Acharya 2014). This use is projected to decline with increasing access to modern medicine. During 1930-1970, it was actively hunted for fur in the eastern part Kazakhstan (mainly in the valley of the River Ili and near Lake Balkhash). More than 23,000  were trapped here in 1933 (Sludsky et al. 1982). Recently, there has been no special fur hunting in Russia or Kazakhstan because of its low population density and the low fur price (A.V. Abramov pers. comm. 2014).

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s): This species is threatened by ongoing habitat conversion across most of its range. These effects seem to be worsening with climate change. Most seriously there are agriculturally-driven pika Ochotona-control campaigns across much of this species's range, which have eradicated the weasel's main food from large areas (Hornskov and Foggin 2007). It is affected by 'mountain meadow' degradation, of the habitats to which it is particularly adapted: on the Tibetan plateau, Hornskov and Foggin (2007) observed that "in most places the natural vegetation cover has been partially to seriously overgrazed by domestic bovids (yak and yak/cow hybrids) and sheep: only a few areas remain with little or no human/livestock impact on the grassland vegetation". This species does not tolerate a high degree of alteration and it avoids agricultural lands. In Nepal it is killed for use as a medicinal charm but given its ongoing common occurrence close to human settlements, this does not seem to be at levels sufficient to threaten it (Ghimirey and Acharya 2014). Widely elsewhere in its range it is occasionally hunted, perhaps mostly for fur, but probably not at levels to drive population declines.

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions: The population in the Russian Far East (Amur Province, Primorski Krai) is listed in the Red Data Book of Russia (2000). In China, the species is listed as Near Threatened (GMA Small Carnivore Workshop 2006). This species is listed in Schedule II part II of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and Appendix III of CITES (India). It is protected by law in Sichuan, China (Li et al. 2000). It occurs in many protected areas. Provided the integrity of these is maintained, it is not a risk of extinction, notwithstanding the major declines driven by various agricultural reasons outside the protected area system.

Classifications [top]

3. Shrubland -> 3.3. Shrubland - Boreal
suitability:Suitable season:resident 
3. Shrubland -> 3.4. Shrubland - Temperate
suitability:Suitable season:resident major importance:Yes
4. Grassland -> 4.4. Grassland - Temperate
suitability:Suitable season:resident major importance:Yes
0. Root -> 6. Rocky areas (eg. inland cliffs, mountain peaks)
suitability:Suitable season:resident major importance:Yes
2. Land/water management -> 2.1. Site/area management
2. Land/water management -> 2.3. Habitat & natural process restoration
5. Law & policy -> 5.2. Policies and regulations

In-Place Research, Monitoring and Planning
  Action Recovery plan:No
  Systematic monitoring scheme:No
In-Place Land/Water Protection and Management
  Conservation sites identified:No
  Occur in at least one PA:Yes
  Area based regional management plan:No
  Invasive species control or prevention:Not Applicable
In-Place Species Management
  Harvest management plan:No
  Successfully reintroduced or introduced beningly:No
  Subject to ex-situ conservation:No
In-Place Education
  Subject to recent education and awareness programmes:No
  Included in international legislation:Yes
  Subject to any international management/trade controls:Yes
11. Climate change & severe weather -> 11.1. Habitat shifting & alteration
♦ timing:Future ♦ scope:Majority (50-90%) ♦ severity:Unknown ⇒ Impact score:Unknown 
→ Stresses
  • 1. Ecosystem stresses -> 1.1. Ecosystem conversion
  • 2. Species Stresses -> 2.1. Species mortality

2. Agriculture & aquaculture -> 2.1. Annual & perennial non-timber crops -> 2.1.2. Small-holder farming
♦ timing:Ongoing ♦ scope:Minority (<50%) ♦ severity:Negligible declines ⇒ Impact score:Low Impact: 4 
→ Stresses
  • 1. Ecosystem stresses -> 1.1. Ecosystem conversion
  • 1. Ecosystem stresses -> 1.2. Ecosystem degradation

2. Agriculture & aquaculture -> 2.3. Livestock farming & ranching -> 2.3.2. Small-holder grazing, ranching or farming
♦ timing:Ongoing ♦ scope:Majority (50-90%) ♦ severity:Slow, Significant Declines ⇒ Impact score:Medium Impact: 6 
→ Stresses
  • 1. Ecosystem stresses -> 1.1. Ecosystem conversion
  • 1. Ecosystem stresses -> 1.2. Ecosystem degradation

2. Agriculture & aquaculture -> 2.3. Livestock farming & ranching -> 2.3.3. Agro-industry grazing, ranching or farming
♦ timing:Ongoing ♦ scope:Minority (<50%) ♦ severity:Slow, Significant Declines ⇒ Impact score:Low Impact: 5 
→ Stresses
  • 1. Ecosystem stresses -> 1.1. Ecosystem conversion
  • 1. Ecosystem stresses -> 1.2. Ecosystem degradation

5. Biological resource use -> 5.1. Hunting & trapping terrestrial animals -> 5.1.1. Intentional use (species is the target)
♦ timing:Ongoing ♦ scope:Minority (<50%) ♦ severity:Negligible declines ⇒ Impact score:Low Impact: 4 
→ Stresses
  • 2. Species Stresses -> 2.1. Species mortality

5. Biological resource use -> 5.1. Hunting & trapping terrestrial animals -> 5.1.2. Unintentional effects (species is not the target)
♦ timing:Ongoing ♦ scope:Majority (50-90%) ♦ severity:Slow, Significant Declines ⇒ Impact score:Medium Impact: 6 
→ Stresses
  • 1. Ecosystem stresses -> 1.2. Ecosystem degradation

1. Research -> 1.2. Population size, distribution & trends
1. Research -> 1.3. Life history & ecology
1. Research -> 1.5. Threats
1. Research -> 1.6. Actions
3. Monitoring -> 3.1. Population trends

Bibliography [top]

Abramov, A.V. 2000. A taxonomic review of the genus Mustela (Mammalia, Carnivora). Zoosystematica Rossica 8: 357–364.

Abramov, A.V., Meschersky, I.G., Aniskin, V.M. and Rozhnov, V.V. 2013. The Mountain Weasel Mustela kathiah (Carnivora: Mustelidae): molecular and karyological data. Biology Bulletin 40: 52–60.

Bannikov, A. G. 1954. Mammals of the Mongolian People's Republic. Nauka, Moscow, Russia.

Ben-Yehuda, T. in prep.. Records of Mountain Weasel Mustela altaica in Ladakh, India.

Bischof, R., Ali, H., Kabir, M., Hameed, S. and Nawaz, M.A. 2014. Being the underdog: an elusive small carnivore uses space with prey and time without enemies. Journal of Zoology, London 293: 40–48.

Choudhury, A. 2013. The mammals of North east India. Gibbon Books and the Rhino Foundation for Nature in NE India, Guwahati, Assam, India.

Dulamtseren, S. 1970. Guide Book of the Mammals in Mongolia. Publishing House of the Mongolian Academy of Science, Ulaanbaatar.

Ghimirey, Y. and Acharya, R. 2014. Status and ethnobiology of Mountain Weasel Mustela altaica in Humla district, Nepal. Small Carnivore Conservation 51: 64–67.

Heptner, V.G., Naumov, N.P., Yurgenson, P.B., Sludskii, A.A., Chirkova, A.F. and Bannikov, A.G. 1967. Mammals of the Soviet Union, Vol.2 (1) Sea cows and Carnivora. Vyshaya shkola, Moscow, USSR.

Hornskov, J. and Foggin, M. 2007. Brief notes on the Altai Weasel Mustela altaica on the Tibetan plateau. Small Carnivore Conservation 36: 48-49.

IUCN. 2016. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2016-1. Available at: (Accessed: 30 June 2016).

Kurose, N., Abramov, A.V. and Masuda, R. 2000. Intrageneric diversity of the cytochrome b gene and phylogeny of Eurasian species of the genus Mustela (Mustelidae, Carnivora). Zoological Science 17: 673–679.

Ministry of Nature and Environment. 2005. Manual for Foreign Hunters and Fishers. Ministry of Nature and Environment. State Inspection Agency and German Technical Cooperation, Ulaanbaatar.

Pocock, R.I. 1941. The Fauna of British India, including Ceylon and Burma. Taylor & Francis, Ltd., London, UK.

Sludsky, A.A., Afanasiev, Y.G., Bekenov, A., Grachev, Y.A., Lobachev, Y.S., Makhmutov, S., Strautman, E.I., Fedoseenko, A.K., and Shubi, I.G. 1982. Mammals of Kazakhstan. Vol. 3, pt 2. Carnivora (Mustelidae, Felidae). Nauka, Alma-Ata, USSR.

Smith, A. T. and Foggin, J. M. 1999. The Plateau Pika (Ochotona curzoniae) is a keystone species for biodiversity on the Tibetan plateau. Animal Conservation 2: 235-240.

Sokolov, V. E. and Orlov, V. N. 1980. Guide to the Mammals of Mongolia. Pensoft, Moscow, Russia.

Sokolov, V.E. and Orlov, V.N. 1980. Guide to the mammals of the Mongolian People's Republic. Nauka, Moscow, Russia.

Stubbe, M. 1965. Jagd, Jagdgesetz und Wild in der Mongolischen Volksrepublik. Beiträge zur Jagd- und Wildforschung 4: 163-178.

Wang, Y.X. 2003. A Complete Checklist of Mammal Species and Subspecies in China (A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference). China Forestry Publishing House, Beijing, China.

Won, C. and Smith, K.G. 1999. History and current status of mammals of the Korean Peninsula. Mammal Review 29: 3–33.

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. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Citation: Abramov, A.V. 2016. Mustela altaica. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T41653A45213647. . Downloaded on 20 January 2017.
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