Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Ferret of a Different Color

Some time ago, Dave over at Prick-Eared asked me to look into the coat colors of domestic ferrets after contemplating the coloring of his own ferret, Rousseau.

A ferret in the sable coloration, the wild phenotype and the one most commonly seen.
To begin, let's look at the ferret in general. Despite what their name implies, they were not domesticated from the black footed ferret. The ferret is instead believed to be the domestic form of the European polecat and has been given the scientific name of Mustela putorius furo. This places it as a subspecies of the European polecat, despite the fact that some believe other polecat blood went into making the ferret. They are Mustelids, a group more commonly known as the weasel family. Mustelids are canine-like carnivores and include weasels, polecats, and ferrets, as well as otters, badgers, wolverines, and other related animals. Ferrets have been domesticated for over two and a half thousand years. Though now most often kept as pets, these small predators were once commonly used to hunt small animals, including rabbits and pest species like mice. They were also bred for their fur, used to run wires through small spaces, have been subjectes of various forms of experimentation, and have even been used in a pub sport known as "ferret legging."

This ferret is albino.
Unlike their wild cousins, the ferret comes in multiple colors. The most commonly seen are the wild-type sable and ruby-eyed albino, but others are possible. The American Ferret Association lists cinnamon, chocolate, black, champagne, black sable, and dark eyed white being possible in addition sable and albino. What these colors look like is fairly straightforward. With sable as a point of reference, chocolates replace the black hair with brown, with champagne being even lighter. Black sables are darker than sables and black should be nearly solidly black. Albinos are self explanatory, and the only visible difference between them and dark eyed whites being the eye color. A variation is known as dark eyed white pattern, among other names, and has some color on its body. Other color names that I have run across include cinnamon and silver. I suspect that cinnamon and champagne may very well be one and the same, and silver appears to be either dark eyed white pattern or possible roan (see below).

Any of these colors may be seen in combination with several patterns possibilities and white markings. Patterns include standard, roan, point/Siamese, and solid. Standards show the shading that would be expected, while solids should have little to no color variation on the body. Roans will have white evenly distributed throughout the body. Siamese will have a more obvious difference between their body and limb colors. White marking possibilities are blaze, panda, and mitt. All three will show white "mitts" on all four feet, with the blaze having an additional white mark on the face and pandas having completely white heads.

When it comes to the genetics of these colors, I was unable to find as much information as I would have liked to find. There has likely been little research done, with only some breeding data showing a hint of the inheritance patterns. Overall, it seems that the darkening of color, such as black, is dominant in nature while the lightening of color, such as albino or cinnamon, are recessive. This appears to be the case in basically all animals, with few exceptions. Also, the spontaneous appearance of new coloration in domestic forms of animals are likely a result of increased homozygosity that results from creating a close population. The genes were probably already in the species, but in such a low concentration that they may go completely unnoticed. The selective inbreeding caused by the domestication process can easily bring them out, whether intentionally or not.

One of the images of Rousseau provided to me by Dave. The dark areas are not always apparent. What color is this ferret?

My best guess as to this ferret's coloring is champagne roan panda or a dark eyed white pattern. The champagne roan panda seems to be more fitting, due to the completely white face and legs and the presence of color on the shoulders. However, since I am not very familiar with ferrets I may very well be wrong.

Sources are Weasel Words, Animal Diversity Web, IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, American Ferret Association, Small Animal Channel, Doctors Foster and Smith, Ferret Central, and this image. First two images are from Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons licenses: one, two. Third image is copyright to Dave of Prick-Eared

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