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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

More on the British Beech Marten

Good Old Richard Holland, yesterday broached the subject of the British beech marten - which as he quite rightly says is a subject that has intrigued me for many years. For those of you unaware of this intriguing footnote to British cryptozoology, here is an edited excerpt from my 1996 book The Smaller Mystery Carnivores of the Westcountry.

There is a little known report from the 1979 volume of the Transactions of the Devonshire Association. An extremely puzzling corpse was found on the road between Exeter and Exmouth, where it had obviously been knocked over by a car. It was originally identified as a Pine Marten, but it was eventually found to be a Beech Marten, (Martes foina), a species that is not supposed to have existed in these islands since before the last Ice Age.

The corpse seems to have disappeared as so many important pieces of quasi fortean evidence are wont to do, and the matter for the moment must remain unsolved. There is at least one more M.foina escapee from Devon in my files. Ian Linn told me of an animal which escaped from a private collection during the Second World War, and which lived wild in Devonshire for several years, before being found dead in a barn near the home of its original owner.

M.martes and M.foina co-exist across much of their European range and there is little doubt that the species could easily live in Devonshire. The big question is, however, apart from two records of escapee specimens and one anomalous corpse, is there any reason to believe that the animal, which after all is not on the British list of resident mammals, was ever resident here? The answer, surprisingly, is ‘yes’.

A paper on the mammals of Devon published by the Devonshire Association in 1877 includes the following species of mustelids as resident in the county.

The Polecat (Putorious puro), the Pine Marten (Martes martes) and the Marten Cat (Martes foina). I make no apologies for quoting this entry for Martes foina in full.

“This species is now, I believe, nearly extinct as a systematic war is waged against it by preserves of game. Mr. P.F. Amery informs me that the last he has heard of was killed near Ashburton about six years ago”.

Writing in 1897 in his paper on the ‘Destruction of Vermin in Rural Parishes’, Brushfield describes the status of Martens as vermin in the Westcountry of the 17th and 18th Centuries:

“MARTEN: There are but few entries on the Parish Accounts of their destruction and all varieties are included under one term. According to Bellamy ‘Marten Cat’ is one of its names in Devonshire.

At Okehampton, a ‘martyn’ was killed in 1760, and a ‘marteil’ in 1787. Two were paid for at Wellington in 1609 and one (a ‘Marting’) in 1700. In each instance one shilling was paid. In 1744 ‘three marts heads’ are entered in the Ecclesfield accounts but from the context they are probably foumarts”.

There are several pieces of useful corroborative evidence here. Firstly, Brushfield himself stresses that there is more than one species involved by stating that ‘all varieties’ are under consideration.

Secondly, although it could be suggested that the variety in names could be mere regional variation, the fact that two separate names were used in the same town only twenty seven years apart, would imply that the townsfolk were used to dealing with two separate species and regarded them as such.

It is also interesting that as recently as 1897, Brushfield was referring to Polecats by their country name of ‘foumarts’.

It is interesting to note that a 19th Century account of the Mammals of Somerset includes M.foina but not M.martes. In Cornwall, too, an 1867 resume of the mammals of the county mentions only M.foina, although M.martes undoubtedly existed in the county at the time:

“‘Rare and Local’. I do not know of any recent notices of its capture, and Mr. Crouch, writing in 1854, believed it to be no longer an inhabitant of the county. ‘The last specimen’, he says, ‘I have been aware of, was killed near Liskeard in the first quarter of the present century, and its loss (for it was in ancient times classed with animals of the chase, and its fur was in high esteem), may be ascribed to the change of habits in society, by which the common use of mineral coal was introduced among farmers. Before that time a large number of pollard trees were permitted to grow in the neighbourhood of ‘town places’ or farm yards, for the purposes of supplying the house with fuel, and the cavities which most of them contained afforded a safe shelter to these, and the others of the weasel tribe. When such fuel became of less importance these hollow trees were gradually cut down, or suffered to fall, to the great diminution of the numbers of the weasel tribe”. Report Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society, 1854. pp.25, 25.”

In a late nineteenth century paper on the Mammals of Dorset, two species of marten are again mentioned. Again, I make no apologies for quoting the references, this time for both species in full!

“Marten Cat (Martes foina)

The Reverend William Chafin in his ‘Anecdotes of Cranborne Chase’, records Marten Cats as one of the animals hunted there but believes them (1816) to be nearly extinct, their skins too valuable for them to be allowed to exist. In 1836 one was caught alive near Stock House by the Rev. H.P. Yeatman’s hounds but biting the huntsman’s hands severely was kept alive for some time”.

Whilst the entry for the Pine Marten merely read:

“One was shot near the Down House, Blandford by Sir John Smith’s keeper in 1844”. (14)

This places both species firmly within the Dorset fauna, and interestingly implies that M.foina was, at the time, the better known animal. A 1916 record of a Dorset Pine Marten is even more sceptical:

“Mustela martes. (sic) The Pine Marten. A record of this interesting little animal was sent in during the year but I am regretfully compelled to reject it for want of preciation (sic). As the animal has been recorded from Hampshire fairly recently the record is possibly correct but as the animal was only seen for a fairly short time and is unfamiliar I should prefer before admitting a record to see a skin of a Dorset specimen”.

It was not until 1879, when Edward Alston published an article entitled “On the Specific Identity of the British Marten” for the Royal Zoological Society, that what had hitherto been described as two separate species, became lumped together as one.

Within only a few years, the mammal reports of each of the regional societies that we have examined contained a sentence reading:

“Animals formerly supposed to belong to the species M.foina or Marten Cat are now considered to be Pine Martens”.

Alston gave few reasons behind his decision to ‘lump’ the two species together as far as Great Britain was concerned. This was only one of several similar occasions in Victorian zoology.

Taxonomists were, and in some ways still are, either ‘lumpers’ or ‘splitters’ and in the days before mitochondrial DNA analysis made the whole process of species definition a less arbitrary matter, were prone to ‘lumping’ together animals previously considered to belong to several different, though closely related, species into one larger species. ‘Splitters’, conversely created several ‘new’ species from one ‘old’ species on the basis of tiny, and often arbitrary differences. On many occasions during our researches, we have found animals described as individual species by Victorian explorers and zoologists, which now are not considered to be distinct even at sub-specific level.

In this case, however, the situation is somewhat different. Alston was not ‘lumping’ together two closely related species, but was, essentially, denying all the historical records of an animal, which as we have seen, were well-known to generations of naturalists, trappers, hunters and churchwardens. There is also no doubt, whatsoever, that M.foina was distinct at a specific level. Even Alston did not contest this, which makes his findings in this little known paper, which has, after all, shaped the face of British mustelid taxonomy for well over a century, all the more puzzling.

Even Alston’s conclusions were not definitive, as he contradicted his own findings by noting one definite 19th Century record of M.foina from Northern Ireland. Unsurprisingly, when I contacted the mammal department at the British Museum (Natural History), they were adamant that they had no knowledge of any specimens of M.foina from the U.K.

Alston also noted that even in 1879, Martens (of whatever species) had an uncanny habit of turning up in areas where they had previously been considered extinct.

“In the north of England, Mr. W.A. Durnford says the species is ‘still plentiful’, and in Lincolnshire several have been recorded, the latest, killed in 1865 by Mr. Cordeaux.

In Norfolk one was shot last year; and I have myself examined a fine example which was shot in Hertfordshire, within twenty miles of London, in December 1872. In Dorsetshire, the last is said to have been killed in 1804, but a specimen occurred in Hampshire about forty years ago, and another in Surrey in 1847.

A marten is said to have been ‘seen’ in the Isle of Wight, and one was recorded from Cornwall by Mr. E. Hearle-Rod; but this proves, on investigation, to be an error, the specimen having been brought from North Wales, where Martens appear to be still not very rare”.

This is, incidentally, the only reference we have been able to unearth to a ‘Welsh’ specimen turning up in Cornwall. It is interesting to compare Alston’s attitudes towards the British distribution of Martens with those equally fallacious figures presented by Langley and Yalden ninety years later. Both authorities, though nearly a century apart, were happy to accept records of the animals in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, but were less optimistic about their distribution in the counties of England. Interestingly, however, Alston was prepared to include some records which, in the light of the main argument of his paper, might have seemed somewhat anomalous. He did accept, however, that some authorities had allowed a greater degree of survival in some English counties than had others.

In the light of Alston’s decision to combine the two species within the British Isles, we should examine the basic anatomy and physiology of the Beech Marten. Morphologically, the Beech or Stone Marten is very similar to the Pine Marten, but it is slightly heavier in build. It has short legs, and a lighter muzzle. The ears are also smaller and narrower than those of the Pine Marten. The soles of the feet of M.foina are not as hairy either, although, unless examining a dead, very tame or anaesthetised specimen, this might be hard to ascertain.

The head and body length is 42 – 48 cm (M.martes 38 – 48 cm), the tail 23 – 26 cm (M.martes 25 – 28 cm), the height at the shoulder 12 cm (M.martes 15cm), and the weight between 1.3 and 2.3 kg (M.martes 0.5 – 1.5 kg).

It ranges across most of Europe except for the Mediterranean islands (they are found on Crete), and supposedly the British Isles. It is found as far north as the southern shores of the Baltic and ranges across Asia to the Himalayas and Mongolia.

The habitats and behaviour of M.foina are where it differs most from M.martes. It is tempting to suggest that the main reason that the two species do not appear to have hybridised in the wild is that, although they occupy the same geographical area, they live in a completely different ecological niche. (See Appendix Two). Its habits are more similar to those of the common Polecat. It prefers more open country and is sometimes seen sitting up on its hind legs.

Here, one should note that the 1992 report of Martens from Exmoor specifically noted that they were seen in open country and mentioned an animal which ‘sat up’ like a Polecat or Ferret.

Unlike any other species of mustelid found in Britain, (with the possible exception of some populations of Badgers), M.foina often lives in surprisingly urban environments and has even been known to live in lofts, garages and warehouses. Like the Urban Fox and like some of the species of Palm Civet from South-east Asia, a shy and adaptable carnivore has changed its lifestyle completely to live alongside man in a new and artificial environment.

The prey of the Beech Marten is more varied than that of the Pine Marten. Urban animals scavenge for rubbish as well as living off smaller urban rodents, and the animals in the more southern parts of its range eat a large proportion of amphibians.

The voice is also more varied and they can make a wide variety of chattering and growling noises. They will sometimes squeal when very excited. The main external differences between the two species is that M.foina has a white patch or bib, rather than a cream patch on its chest. Maurice Burton’s guide to the ‘Mammals of Britain and Europe’, (1990 edition), notes that the ‘bib’ is divided into left and right parts. This is undoubtedly the case, but as we have already seen the ‘bib’ of the Pine Marten can be equally bifurcated in some populations and so therefore the sight of a Marten with a fragmented ‘bib’ is not necessarily a bona fide sighting of M.foina rather than M.martes. The colouration is not necessarily a definite sign either as, although the ‘bib’ of M.foina is always white, the ‘bib’ of M.martes can be such a pale fawn as to be indistinguishable from white, especially at any distance.

There are also minor osteological and dentition differences as well as genetic differences, and it is interesting to note that, although the two species co-exist over much of their range, they do not seem to interbreed. As we have seen, the naturalists of the late Victorian and early 20th Century eras were renowned for both their arbitrary ‘lumping together’ of disparate species and their equally arbitrary creation of new ones, simply in order to make life easier for the taxonomist.

It is an indisputable fact that, whereas a hundred and fifty years ago there were two species of Marten recognised in Britain, only one has ever made it into the history books, and it also seems reasonable that utilising cryptozoological methodology, giving credence to eyewitness reports, and to the etymological evidence, the people who were actually familiar with the creatures considered them to belong to two separate species, which seems to be valuable circumstantial evidence pointing towards them being two separate species.

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1 comment:

Retrieverman said...

There is now evidence that the two "martens" that live in North America might not be martens at all. In fact, analysis of their DNA suggests that the fisher and the American martern are more closely related to the wolverine/glutton and the tayra than the European beech and pine martens, the sable, and other Old World martens. However, taxonomists have yet to come up with a genus or other subgroup for these "pseudo-martens."

It would be very interesting if a population beech martens could be found in the UK. They are found throughout the rest of Europe, so it wouldn't be surprising if they were found there.

The fact that the big "marten" of North America is called a "fisher" is one of the strangest misidentifications. I've read two theories about why we call them fishers. The most accpeted one is the French fur trade, which extensively trapped the North American forests, marketed fisher pelts as "fichet," which is the word that more properly describes the European polecat. Anglophone settlers misheard "fichet" as "fisher."

Another theory is that the early settles mistook the arboreal fisher for the littoral sea mink, which was described in all earlier texts as a "water marten" or "fisher cat." (Sir Humprhey Gilbert called it a "fyshe like a greyhound," which is actually my favorite name for that extinct species). The sea mink's pelt was in demand, and when fur trappers moved into the forests beyond the Atlantic Ocean they found another marten, which they mistook for the sea mink, which some of them called a "fisher." The name was established for the large arboreal weasel as "the fisher."

Now, the sea mink wasn't recognized as a mink or even a distinct species of mink until 1903, when an achaeological dig into an Indian kitchen midden in Maine produced the bones of a "giant mink." It was only when the historical records were fully analyzed that we knew of the existence of a second species of mink in this hemisphere. However, the species had already gone extinct-- most likely in the 1860's, but the traditional account says it went extinct on Campobello Island, Nova Scotia, in 1894. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was simply regarded as a big red mink. No one thought of it as a distinct species.

In fact, it was so badly misidentified that some people thought the large arboreal marten was the same species!