The American marten (Martes americana) is without a doubt one of the cutest North American mammals. Quick, agile, and active, it is an opportunistic predator that loves to eat small mammals like mice, voles, snowshoe hares, and squirrels. It will also take insects, birds, and a variety of fruit when it finds them. The marten is a mustelid, or member of the weasel family, and is found throughout Northern North America in mature coniferous and mixed hardwood forests. It has a very large territory for being such a small animal and this can be up to about six square miles. It is mostly solitary and male and female interaction doesn’t occur often at anytime other than during breeding season. Even then, there is no bond formed between pairs and a female will go into heat several times, taking a different male as her partner each time. After courtship and mating, the female goes off alone to raise her young, called kits. The kits are adult size and ready to go off on their own by three and a half months of age.
American martens are largely arboreal and spend a good amount of their time in the trees. They generally do their hunting on the ground, but will occasionally go on fast chases through the trees after squirrels, which are a particularly special treat. Living in cold, Northern climates, martens are very well adapted to the snow. In fact, you are more likely to find a marten where there is a thick covering of snow on the ground. These little mammals have a hard time retaining their own body heat because they have very limited fat reserves, so snow provides a safe place to hide and insulate their bodies while they enter a shallow torpor on colder days. A torpor is a thermoregulatory process that slows down an animal’s metabolism and reduces body heat. It is used to conserve energy when food supplies get low or when it is too cold for the animal to function normally. This saves energy that would have otherwise been used to maintain body heat. In some periods of the winter, American martens will go into a torpor almost daily. The rest of the time, they will thermoregulate themselves by changing their activity and behavior. Hunting and foraging is one way that they keep themselves warm. Another way is tunneling long distances under the surface of the snow. Some marten snow tunnels can reach up to almost 100 feet!
A common misnomer is to call these animals pine martens. True pine martens (Martes martes) occur in Europe, not North America. However, our martens are sometimes also called American pine martens, which could be considered more correct, as it designates their geographical origin. When unsure of an animal’s common name, it is always better to go by its scientific name, if known, to avoid error.
American martens measure from 1.8 to 2.2 feet long and weigh up to three pounds. They have sharp, semi-retractable claws like a cat as well as rounded, catlike ears. Their fur is very soft and silky which led to them being heavily trapped for their pelts during the early 1900s. This drastically reduced their populations, but now the species has recovered and American martens have been introduced in areas where they were once extinct. Today, there are still periodic pelt collections for the purpose of population control, but this doesn’t make a significant impact on overall marten numbers. I personally don’t think they should be trapped at all. American martens are important predators in their ecosystems and keep other small mammal populations in check through their predation. If there is a marten population boom, there will be less food available for each marten and the population control will occur naturally because of that prey scarceness. It shouldn’t be up to humans to decide when the population of an animal becomes too large. Especially with animals as adorable as the American marten. I’m sure their fur is lovely, but it looks much better on a live, frisky marten running through the snow and playing in the trees.
1. Stone, Katharine. 2010. Martes americana. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/ [2015, May 20].
2. “American Pine Marten.” The Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy, n.d. Web. 21 May 2015. <http://www.nature.org/newsfeatures/specialfeatures/animals/mammals/pine-marten.xml>.