...these sea mink used to bring considerably more than others on account of their great size...they were persistently hunted...with dogs trained for the purpose. As the price of mink rose, they were hunted more and grew scarcer, 'til in the sixties, when mink skins brought eight or ten dollars apiece, parties who made a business of hunting nearly or quite exterminated the race.

Despite the implication of its name, the sea mink (Mustela macrodon) was not a marine mammal. But similar to the also somewhat implausibly named (but actual sea mammal) the Steller's sea cow, it is very much extinct. Greed and ruthless hunting, wiping out an entire species.

That is not to say that it wasn't a true mink. It certainly was, of the genus Mustela, in fine company with other (non-extinct) minks, ermines, ferrets, a couple polecats, and weasels. Yeah, ...weasels (mustela being Latin for "weasel"). And there's nothing like going out on the town sporting a fine Indonesian mountain weasel (Mustela lutreolina) fur coat. Or not.

Like most mink, it spent time near the water (rivers, streams, lakes). Both extant species are strong swimmers and not afraid to get a little wet. But the main thing giving this weasel mink its name was that it lived in close proximity to the North American coastline of the Atlantic Ocean.

The mink's range included the rocky coastline and small islands that stretched between the state of Maine (maybe as far south as Massachusetts) and possibly as far north as New Brunswick and the Bay of Fundy (perhaps even Newfoundland Island and Nova Scotia). Unfortunately, no scientific or even amateur naturalist study was ever done while the sea mink still existed.

Sources are pretty firm that it lived along northern coastal Maine but the rest of its range comes largely from bone evidence found at various Indian/First Nations campsites because discarded shells among the bones neutralized the soil's acidity, preserving them. But this presents two problems. One is that most of the skeletons are incomplete (and preservation isn't absolute, some degradation of the material occurred). The other is that many of those bones may have been transported there as trade items or hunted elsewhere for food, pelts, or other uses. In the end, there is so little to go on.

Some of these men went from island to island, hunting any small ledge where a mink could live. They carried their dogs with them, and besides guns, shovels, pick-axes and crow-bars, took a good supply of pepper and brimstone.

Why did the sea mink die out and not its two brothers the American mink (M. vison) and the European mink (M. lutreola)? One of the primary reasons was that it had a much more limited range than the other mink. At one time, the American mink lived throughout the United States with the main exception being the hot, arid southwest (Arizona, particularly). It still has a large range from the South as far north as Alaska. Its European sibling also has a large range, being found in numerous places in Europe, including the Scandinavian countries and east to Russia. Accidental introduction of the somewhat bigger (see below) American mink has pushed out the native mink in some places and also caused drops in populations of some small wetland birds and mammals that are its food.

Farms to raise mink for fur have been around since the 1800s (farms can now be found all over the world, well beyond the original range of either species). The history of mink fur as a valuable commodity goes back much further. Mink may have been one of the first animals sold for fur in North America. And like desirable commodities, there's a great deal of money to be made from it—especially when westerners were confronted by the great North American continent, filled with these furry weasels mink. Like beaver and bison (the latter which very nearly did become extinct around the dawn of the twentieth century) the abundance created a sort of fur gold rush for trappers looking to make their fortune.

It certainly couldn't have helped that, being a coastal species, it would have been encountered far earlier than ones that were settled more in the interior of the continent.

But were those the only reasons? Not quite. The much smaller range (and thus, smaller overall population) and profit to be had from mink fur are key, but there was another thing that exacerbated the relentless hunting down of any and all of the creatures. See: the sea mink was a big mink. And the bigger the mink, the more fur. The more fur, the.... You do the math. M. macrodon no longer has that luxury.

Sure, the sea mink had a somewhat reddish fur (as opposed to the dark brown to black of the other species), but what made it stand out was how much larger it was. To show the contrast, let's examine the other two minks.

The smaller is the European mink. In all species (assuming that to be the case for the sea mink), males tend to be somewhat larger, so I'll use a rough average. M. lutreola is around 36 cm (just over 14 inches) long, including the typical mink-like bushy tail. The average weight is around 600 g (about 1 lb 5 oz). The still-living American version runs about 61 cm (about 24 inches) and weighs in at approximately 1150 g (2.5 lb). Both can be somewhat shorter and lighter or longer and fatter, of course (but not shorter and longer or thinner and fatter—that'd just be wrong).

The sea mink could be as much as twice the length (with, one assumes, a roughly proportional increase in weight—some reports made specific note that the mink was "fat"). One that was killed in the mid 1800s reportedly measured nearly 84 cm (about 33 inches). Even though that's a single case, it's certainly likely sea mink could hit or even exceed the three foot mark—perhaps even a meter.

One old account claimed to see one that was slightly bigger than a fox and shaped much like an Italian greyhound—though probably having a mink's characteristically arched back, it's unlikely it wouldn't have a mink's characteristically short legs (even though proportionately larger). Still impressive for a member of the weasel group. Another account claims to have observed one with a trout in its mouth which was fed to its young.

And that's why sea mink was worth twice that of its more inland brethren.

If they took refuge in holes or cracks of the ledges, they were usually dislodged by working with shovels and crow-bars, and the dogs caught them when they came out. If they were in the crevices of the rocks where they could not be got at and their eyes could be seen to shine, they were shot and pulled out by means of an iron rod with a screw at the end.

What else can be pieced together about the extraordinary sea mink? Mostly through extrapolation from what is known about its habitat and its non-extinct fellows. Mink, as noted, tend to live near water and therefore eat the sort of food found there. Carnivores, mink tend to eat (size appropriate) birds and their eggs; small mammals like mice, voles, even muskrats; fish; amphibians like newts, frogs, salamanders; and crayfish. Sometimes larger prey are attempted like rabbits.

It is likely the sea mink consumed a similar diet which probably included larger fowl and mammals and included ocean fish. Since mink are good swimmers, able to dive up to 5 m (over 16 feet) and swim underwater for as much as 30 m (over 98 feet), it's highly likely the sea mink was able to hunt (or fish, rather) for its prey in the shallow waters off the coast where it made its home. You know—at sea.

The two modern species make their homes in abandoned burrows near waters' edge (or they clear out the nest) or sometimes dig their own. Occasionally they will make their homes in natural openings in the banks.

Primarily nocturnal, minks are also known for their smell: a strong musky scent that comes from anal glands with which they mark their territory (necessary since the mostly solitary animal tends to be unforgiving of trespassers—particularly the males). The odor also releases when the animal is startled or frightened. And watch out, they will attack.

What's in a name? Depends. But if one really wants to know, the sea mink was given the appellation of M. macrodon in 1903 when it was recognized as a separate species. But there has been some disagreement over the years (as happens common enough in taxonomy). Some scientists believe it to be a subspecies of M. vison and is sometimes seen as M. vison macrodon. Some have suggested that the sea mink and American mink both belong to a separate genus—Neovison—rather than Mustela. Some people aren't so interested. And move on to the last section.

If they could not be seen, they were usually driven out by firing in charges of pepper. If this failed, then they were smoked with brimstone, in which case they either came out or were suffocated in their holes. Thus in a short time they were nearly exterminated.

Nearly? No. No mysterious sightings that stoke the fires of imagination that the sea mink might still be out there, hiding in the shadows and shallows and burrows, quietly living out its life away from the men with the dogs and the pickaxes and the brimstone. They're gone. Wiped out.

Given that population studies and biological surveys were not things done at the time and probably not feasible given the ruggedness of the territory at the time and the nature of the creature both in habitation and attitude, it isn't clear just when that final sea mink was dug out with the screw-tipped iron rod or died from disease or old age. Some say as far back as 1860—though written accounts of sightings and observation by trappers and others seem to suggest they survived into the 1870s or later.

The last claimed sea mink is thought to have been killed around 1894. Since it wasn't even considered a separate species for nearly a decade more and that there would be an understandable range in size, it might be possible that particular mink was merely a larger specimen of its brother species. The last commercial pelts were sold around 1880.

In the end, no one is sure when the last gasp came but it's almost certain the creature never saw the twentieth century.

Sources:
Sea Mink
"An Abundance of Wildlife Endangered Species Handbook"
http://www.endangeredspecieshandbook.org/dinos_abundance.php
Italicised quotes cited there

"Canadian Biodiversity: Species: Mammals: Sea Mink"
http://www.canadianbiodiversity.mcgill.ca/english/species/mammals/mammalpages/mus_mac.htm

"Comprehensive Report Species - Mustela vison macrodon"
http://www.natureserve.org/explorer/servlet/NatureServe?searchName=Mustela+macrodon

"Extinct Mammals"
http://www.rsmas.miami.edu/support/lib/seas/seasQA/QAs/e/extinctmam.html

"Extinction: Sea Mink..."
http://www.uwsp.edu/geo/faculty/heywood/geog358/extinctm/SeaMink.htm

"IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Mustela macrodon"
http://www.iucnredlist.org/search/details.php/40784/all

"Kineo-Traveler Mountain Porphyry and Sea Mink Bones: an Archaeological Puzzle"
http://www.unb.ca/anthropology/Experiences/black/Kineo-SeaMink/sea.htm

"Mary Pearl"
http://www.thewildones.org/Scientists/askMary.html

General Mink Info
"ADW: Mustela lutreola: Information"
http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Mustela_lutreola.html
"ADW: Mustela vison: Information"
http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Mustela_vison.html

"Mink"
http://www.twingroves.district96.k12.il.us/Wetlands/Mink/Mink.html

"mink --Encyclopædia Britannica"
http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9052859 (accessed through personal account)

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