Saturday, 30 April 2022

Part 6: Small Carnivores and Insectivores

Northern White-breasted Hedgehog

As one might expect from such a large and diverse country, Ukraine is home to a wide range of small and medium sized insectivores and carnivores. These pursue insects, small rodents, various lagomorphs and in some cases fish and amphibians depending on the habitat. Many are similar to those we would find in Britain and northern Europe, others are unique to the region. 

To begin with a familiar species, the Northern White-breasted Hedgehog Erinaceus roumanicus was formerly classed as a subspecies of the Southern White-breasted Hedgehog E.concolor but has since been split. It is very similar to the species found in western Europe, the European Hedgehog E.europaeus, and has a similar fondness for human modified habitats such as parks, gardens and arable fields where a plentiful supply of insects and worms can be found. Unlike their western relative, they do not dig dens, instead making nests deep in grass. For the winter hibernation period they find dry areas under logs or other concealed and protected areas where they can sleep the winter away. They give birth in summer to 4-6 young, sometimes more, and have a lifespan in the wild of only a few years. Given its large range and generalist ecology, it is listed by the IUCN as Least Concern. 
Southern Water Shrew

There are at least seven species of shrew to be found in Ukraine, feeding voraciously as with all shrews on insects and sometimes small vertebrates. This last is especially true of the larger species such as the Southern Water Shrew Neomys anomalus, which regularly preys on frogs and small fish. As with many shrews it has venomous saliva, which incapacitates its prey. It is slightly smaller than the Eurasian Water Shrew Neomys fodiens, which tends to exclude it in areas where both are found. A wetland species it is vulnerable to habitat destruction and has a somewhat patchy distribution making local extinctions more likely, but is stall classed as Least Concern. 
Russian Desman

Unlike the solitary shrews, the strangest of Ukraines’ insectivorous mammals, the Russian Desman Desmana moschate seems to live in small social groups of up to five individuals. Technically a mole rather than a shrew, this semi-aquatic animal is functionally blind but compensates with a highly sensitive sense of touch. Although its main diet comprises various aquatic insects, they also feed on fish and amphibians and even take some plant material. Unfortunately they have quite specific habitat requirements, preferring shallow lakes or slow-moving rivers with dense waterside vegetation backed by primary forest, and this is in increasingly short supply. As a result the species is classed by the IUCN as Endangered. In Ukraine it is restricted to the north and west of the country. 

Steppe Polecat

The other large group of small carnivores in Ukraine are a wide variety of mustelids. Rivers and lakes are home to European Otter Lutra lutra, which in Ukraine may be locally threatened by pollution and habitat loss, but globally is Least Concern. Bother the Steppe (Mustela eversmannii) and European (M.putorius) Polecats can be found in Ukraine. M.putorius seems to prefer damper areas given the choice and in many parts of its range specialises in amphibians, whereas Steppe Polecats are true steppe specialists, feeding on ground squirrels, hamsters and marmots. They are highly nomadic, travelling miles each day in search of food and mostly staying in one place only until the local rodents have been reduced in numbers. It is likely that at some point in the distant past Steppe Polecats crossed the Bering land bridge to North America, where they became the ancestors of an iconic American small carnivore, The Black-Footed Ferret. They may also be the species domesticated as the domestic Ferret, much used in the past to hunt rabbits in England. 
European Mink

Despite its name, the European Mink Mustela lutreola is not at all closely related to the American Mink, but is instead a good native European species in its own right. Unfortunately a combination of habitat destruction and competition from American Mink has severely impacted its population, and it is now classed as Critically Endangered. At present only a few remnant populations can be found in a few of the rivers of the Carpathians in Ukraine. Part of the reason for its decline may be that it appears to be something of a dietary specialist on crayfish, and pollution and agricultural development has severely impacted wetlands and crayfish numbers in its range. 
Marbled Polecat

Finally, the most colourful of Ukraines mustelids is the Marbled Polecat Vormela pregusna. This has a range from eastern Europe across central Asia to China and south through the middle east as far as the Siunai Peninsula. It has a similar diet to the Steppe Polecat, but is more an animal of deserts, semi-desert and rocky areas where they feed on rodents, birds, and whatever they can catch. Destruction of steppe habitat has resulted in a population decline across its large range, which has put it in the Vulnerable category. The barren habitats where it mostly lives are not very productive of prey, so they need large ranges and have a correspondingly low population density.

Next time, I will look at the larger carnivores of Ukraine.

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