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Nature: Marten among mammals that have disappeared from Ohio

An American marten hunts in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario


February 4, 2018

NATURE
Jim McCormac

In the big picture, mammals don’t constitute a large segment of Ohio’s animal diversity. Fifty-six species occur in the state. Compared with birds, fish, insects or spiders, they’re a drop in the bucket.
Yet, wild, free-ranging mammals always generate excitement among observers. The thrill often seems disproportionate to their frequency. A coyote, striped skunk or white-tailed deer — all common – will nearly always grab and hold one’s eye.

Maybe we subconsciously recognize them as our distant kin in the phylum Chordata.

As a sad reflection on how the times have changed, nearly 20 percent of Ohio’s mammals that occurred at the time of European settlement are extirpated — vanquished from the state.

In the 1700s, the true wilderness of Ohio teemed with fish, fowl and various beasts. Its expansive forests, prairies and fruited plains harbored mammals that few modern Ohioans realize were part of our past.

American bison forged “buffalo trails” and ranged statewide. The last one was shot in Lawrence County in 1803, our year of statehood. Gray wolves and mountain lions were common predators, but they were shot out by the mid-1800s. Lynx roamed northern Ohio forests, but they couldn’t compete with burgeoning human populations and vanished early in our settlement era. Elk, once common and widespread, were hunted out by the 1840s.

A lesser-known animal once found here is the American marten. It, like the other vanished mammals, disappeared by the middle of the 19th century.

The marten is a fascinating carnivore belonging to the Mustelidae family, which includes minks, otters and weasels.
On a recent trip to Canada’s Algonquin Provincial Park, I finally made firsthand acquaintance with the marten. Although its range has shifted far to the north of Ohio, it remains common in the vast swath of boreal forest that blankets much of Canada and the northern U.S.
The first marten encounter was utterly serendipitous. I and a photographer friend were seeking birds in a campground when a marten dashed from cover and darted into a paper-recycling bin. We retreated to cover and waited it out in minus 2-degree cold.

Eventually the curious brute emerged from cover and offered fine looks. Martens are similar in size to a mink, but appear burlier — mildly bearlike. An adult measures about 2 feet in length. The bushy tail adds another half foot.

A hefty individual weighs about 3 pounds. Their tri-toned coloration is striking: whitish face and bib, black legs and tail, and yellowish-brown body.

We later ran across another, bolder marten foraging in the snow — it is the animal in the accompanying photo.

Martens are voracious predators, feeding mostly on small mammals such as mice and voles. But few critters up to its size or even larger are safe in the sphere of a hungry marten. They are known to take snowshoe hares — another mammal no longer found in Ohio — and these strapping bunnies can weigh 4 pounds.
Bison, martens, lynx and the other eradicated mammals I mentioned will probably never again grace Ohio’s wilds. But we can always harbor hope. Five mammal species once eliminated from the state have returned, or show signs of trying.
Black bears are now routinely seen, especially in northeastern Ohio. River otters are thriving over much of the state. A bigger relative of the marten, the fisher, has been reported several times in recent years in eastern Ohio. So has the famously prickly porcupine. And bobcats grow more common each year: There were over 500 sightings in 2017.

But for Ohio marten enthusiasts, a trip to Canada’s north woods is required.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

Comments

Glen Bengson said…
Martens may still be in Ohio. Several weeks ago I spotted what at first looked like a cat under our birdfeeders. We live, abutting a wooded gulley that drains into the Olentangy, north of Powell Rd just off Rt 23. I told my wife it looked like maybe a small bobcat (tho I'm no naturalist and was hardly confident). Then I saw the pix in today's Dispatch and said, "That's it!" This photo is so close to what I saw, the rounded ears, the cat-like face, the body more rounded than a cat's, the coloring as described. So, maybe...
Glen Bengson
Jim McCormac said…
Hmmm, would have to rule out the very similar mink first, which is very common along the Olentangy. The nearest known martens are several hundred miles to our north.
Is Ohio trying any kind of reintroduction of martens? In WI, they have been reintroduced in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.
Jim McCormac said…
No. I don’t think we have any good marten habitats left
Jo Thompson said…
Great piece, as usual. Thank you.
Can you please provide a source for the statement: "nearly 20 percent of Ohio’s mammals that occurred at the time of European settlement are extirpated"
Jim McCormac said…
Jack Gottschang’s “Mammals if Ohio” and it’s update, which is in progress

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