On a spring day a small brown weasel scurries through the forest on Prince of Wales Island. A few months ago, this little ermine was white - like snowshoe hares, ermine wear a white coat in winter. Now its summer brown, like other ermine across Alaska. But this ermine is a little different. Researchers have learned that ermine on a few islands in British Columbia and southern Southeast Alaska are genetically distinct, and different enough to merit their own name and species designation - the Haida ermine.
it's one of three main ermine species in the world. Researcher Jocelyn Colella, building on work by biologist Natalie Dawson, looked at tissue samples from ermine in Alaska, Europe, Asia and across North America - identifying their genetic makeup. She also compared ermines' skulls. She found that there were three main species: one in Eurasia, one in North America and one found only on Prince of Wales in Southeast Alaska and Haida Gwaii off the coast of British Columbia.
These islands were not glaciated during the ice age, serving as refugia for a variety of animals. Isolated, and adapting to specific environmental conditions, the population became genetically distinct over thousands of years.
The Haida ermine isn't the only animal specific to the area. Marten, a larger weasel, also show the same indicators, as does the Franklin grouse. Black bears in the area are genetically distinct but are not considered a separate species from other American black bears.