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The Sea Mink

Updated on December 13, 2015
No drawings were ever made of live sea minks
No drawings were ever made of live sea minks | Source

In addition to the American and European varieties of mink, there was once a much larger species called the sea mink. It was wiped out by the fur trade, before it was even recognized as a separate species. It inhabited the coastal areas of New England and southeastern Canada. Not a lot is known about it. It was never examined by scientists before it went extinct. In fact, no photographs or even drawings of live specimens were made. No full skeleton or pelts exist. All we have are some bones retrieved from Native American midden heaps.

Sea minks were larger than American minks, although by how much is not clear. Some sources say they were ten to twenty percent larger, while others say they were twice as large. Their fur was redder and coarser than American minks. It is also reported that they had a distinctive odor.Their teeth are larger and more sturdy than those of American mink. From this, scientists have deduced that they fed on harder prey, such as crabs and other shellfish.

Extinction of the Sea Mink

There are a wide variety of dates for the extinction of the sea mink. The earliest date given is 1860. Other dates are 1880 (a pelt was reportedly sold to a Jonesboro, Maine fur trader), 1894 (when an animal was killed on Campobello Island, New Brunswick) and 1920. The 1894 animal was later mounted, but there is no consensus whether it is a sea mink or American mink.

The sea mink was probably never very common, and it was heavily hunted, since its large pelt brought a good price. Around the time of the American Civil War, a high quality sea mink pelt was worth $10 - A lot of money at that time (Union privates earned $13 per month at the start of the Civil War). According to one son of a fur buyer, hunters went from island to island well prepared. They killed the mink in a variety of ways:

  • If the mink went into a hole, they used shovels and crowbars to drive them out. When they exited the hole, dogs would get them.
  • If the mink went into a rock crevice and could not be dug out, they would would shoot it if they could see their eyes shining. They would then pull it out with an iron rod that had a screw on one end.
  • If a mink could not be seen in its hiding place, hunters would fire pepper into the cavity to drive it out. If this was unsuccessful, they would try to smoke it out with brimstone.

Recognition of the Sea Mink as a Distinct Species

The first time any mention of the sea mink appears in scientific literature is 1903. A two page paper entitled "Description of an extinct mink from the shellheaps of the Maine coast" by Daniel Webster Prentiss appeared in Proceedings of the United States National Museum. Dr. Prentiss never uses the term "sea mink" but refers to it as an "extinct species of mink" and the Latin name "lutreola macrodon". The paper is based on field work in 1897, which looked at pre-Columbian shell heaps along the Maine coast. Prentiss had no way of dating these piles, but concluded they were by Native Americans due to the absence of metal or anything from Europe.

No complete skeletons of sea minks exist today. All that is available for scientists to examine are bones and pieces of bone, primarily skulls. In Prentiss' original paper, the argument for a distinct species was principally size. His paper contained measurements for the three skulls shown below. The top one is from a sea mink. The one on the bottom left is an Alaskan subspecies of American mink, which is the largest subspecies of American mink. The one on the bottom right is the American mink subspecies from the Atlantic coast.

Skull images from the original D.W. Prentiss paper
Skull images from the original D.W. Prentiss paper | Source

Since 1903

Not a great deal more has been learned about the sea mink since it was described by Prentiss in his 1903 paper. More bones have been found, but since Indians hunted them for food, all of their skulls have been broken. Because of radio carbon dating, it is now known that some of the shell heaps where sea mink bones have been found date as far back as five thousand years ago. Additional finds have also shown that the sea mink range extended into Canada. There is still not complete agreement on whether the sea mink is a distinct species or a subspecies.

Sea mink jaw (top) compared to jaw from an adult male American mink
Sea mink jaw (top) compared to jaw from an adult male American mink | Source

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