The ecological significance of resting sites and the seasonal habitat change in polecats (Mustela putorius)



    1. Natural History Museum, Augustinergasse 2, CH-4051 Basel, Switzerland
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    • *Hintermann & Weber, eco-logical consultants, Hauptstrasse 44, CH-4153 Reinach, Switzerland


The daytime resting sites of 13 radio-tracked polecats (Mustela putorius) were recorded in a mountainous and a lowland study area in Switzerland. Information on breeding sites was collected from questionnaires distributed throughout the country. At all resting sites, the polecats were completely invisible from more than a metre distant. During summer, when polecats mainly live in forests, individuals used many different hiding-places (e.g. small self-dug burrows, woodpiles, heaps of branches and dry leaves, dense vegetation). Such places were used for short periods, and then abandoned. Above ground, the polecats sometimes built nests of dry grass or moss. In winter, the polecats slept mainly inside barns, stables and other buildings. These resting sites were changed less frequently. In rainy weather throughout the year, subterranean places were preferred. Breeding polecats were often found inside houses, and obviously did not avoid human presence.

The importance of different types of resting sites for polecats is discussed. In summer, the quality of a resting place is of less importance than its distance from the foraging area, but in winter, warm resting places are essential and buildings are therefore considered an important resource for polecats in Switzerland. The seasonal habitat change can more readily be explained as a consequence of thermoregulatory problems than of food availability, and the distribution of polecats in Switzerland may be affected by the availability of suitable winter resting places. The northern limit of polecat distribution and its historical changes can be explained by the changing availability of human buildings which provide winter resting sites.