February 27th, 2013

Cat Air

Unexpected Furry Animals

Last night I went to a free talk on pine martens at my local museum, the Horniman. I was hoping to glean material for my putative children's book, P.I.N.E. Marten, about a Private Investigator named Neil Evelyn Marten who is also a pine marten (that's all I have so far, but I think you'll agree it's a winner).

The talk was given by a representative of the Vincent Wildlife Trust, who track and survey pine martens amongst their other activities, and my title comes from a poster urging the public to report any 'UFAs' they encounter. (Methods of tracking pine marten activity include scat-sniffing dogs and treat-stuffed drainpipes with a sticky pad to catch hair.)

I learned lots about pine martens, not all of it suitable for children. They're Britain's second rarest mammal, after the Scottish wildcat, and our third largest native mustelid, after badgers and otters. Females delay implantation, so they mate in August/September and don't become pregnant until February, giving birth in April. They have a distinctive cream-coloured bib and each marten's bib pattern is unique, so individuals can be recognised by their markings. I also learned the word haplotype, and considered the following mystery: DNA tests of pre-1950 stuffed specimens/skins identified them all as haplotype i while most of the pine martens tested in Britain in the last few years are haplotype A (the rest are French or Czech haplotypes and probably escaped from zoos).

Pine martens have a close relative, not available in this country, called the beech or stone marten. My book immediately acquired a pair of Wint & Kidd-style characters called Mr Beech and Mr Stone.

The main take-home point, though, is that pine martens are adorable. They have little triangular faces and huge triangular ears; fluffy tails and chocolatey feet. They love peanut butter and their poo smells like parma violets (allegedly).

I got to ask the final question of the evening: why do pine martens have such massive ears, when mustelids usually have quite small ones? The speaker didn't know the answer, but the question made everyone laugh.

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