A New Moniker for Fishers: What is in a Name?

“What is in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” (William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet)

What is a fisher? I sit back, take a deep breath, and let words emerge: Elusive. Regal. Zen Master. Their name veils mystery.

Large cottonwood with a stellar view of the Bulkley Valley
Large cottonwood with a stellar view of the Bulkley Valley. When clearing the land, some trees were left standing, providing important habitat features for many wildlife species.

If you haven’t heard of fishers, you’re not alone. More likely than not, you are solidly in a majority. I was reminded about this fact few weeks ago when a friend reported, “Hey, I just saw a fisher. A great big fisher. A fisher as big as a wolverine (well maybe not quite I thought).” Where, I asked (silently wishing I had been there)? They both stopped to stare at each other on the Trail to Town from Hudson’s Bay Mountain ski area.

 

Fishers are Elusive

Excluding my carnivore biologist colleagues, I can count on one hand the number of people that have told me they have seen a fisher. Sightings are rare. Even so, I know they’re there. Sometimes, I see their tracks. Whenever I ski through that part of the ski out, I always think of them. I wasn’t surprised to hear that the sleek, rich brown, longed tailed critter was exactly where I imagined it might be. The cottonwood–birch–aspen–spruce mixed forest ecosystem feels like fisher habitat. For me, it’s an exciting affirmation; someone is home. Given its size, it’s probably a male.

Fishers are so elusive that when I tell people about my fieldwork with them I usually get one of two diametrically opposed responses. The first, is a prompt, “what is a fisher?” In the second, my partner in conversation is engaged, then their expression morphs to quizzical, and then (just as I realize what is happening) I get a hesitant, “what is a fisher?” To my response: “Oh, now I get it. I thought you were talking about a person (or a fish).”

 

What is a Fisher?

Female fisher tracks in snow with my field notebook for scale.
Female fisher tracks in snow with my field notebook for scale. Members of the weasel family have five toes on each foot, unlike the cat and dog family, which have four.

Good question: what is a fisher? The fisher is a medium-sized member of the weasel family (Family Mustelidae), the most diverse of the carnivore families in BC. Among their closest relatives, fishers are outsized by sea otters, river otters, wolverines and badgers; and they outsize pacific martens, American martens, minks, and a bundle of weasel-weasels (long-tailed weasels, ermine, and least weasels). Totaling 11 species in BC, the weasel family by far outnumbers the other carnivore families that include the cat family (Family Felidae) with cougars, lynx, bobcats; the dog family (Family Canidae) with wolves, coyotes, red foxes; the skunk family (Family Mephitidae) with spotted skunks and striped skunks; the bear family (Family Ursidae) with black bears and grizzly bears; and the raccoon family (Family Procyonidae) with the masked (and sometimes mischievous) racoons all on their own.

 

Shaking the Family Tree

After tracking them for several seasons in the Williston Reservoir area in central B.C. and the Kiskatinaw River area in northeastern B.C., I thought I had a fairly good idea. Last fall, I was surprised to learn otherwise at a retreat for weasel family experts keen to share experiences, ideas and questions about their favourite animals. I learned that, in 2012, the scientific name for fisher was changed from Martes pennanti to Pekania pennanti in a reassignment of genera (akin to shaking the family tree to rearrange some major branches) based on analysis of nuclear–mitochondrial DNA data. Wow! In the world of a biologist, that’s a big deal and yet another humbling reminder that we still have lots to learn about the species we study (a common theme in my career).

Happy Land for Fishers in a cottonwood-birch-spruce ecosystem
Happy Fisher Land in an open cottonwood-birch-aspen-spruce ecosystem bordering farmland.

Researchers previously thought fishers were more closely related to martens (Martes spp.), formerly sharing the same genus. However, based on genetic evidence, it turns out that fishers are more closely related to wolverines (Gulo gulo), but distant enough to warrant a new genus of their own. A fisher certainly looks a lot more like marten than a wolverine. But, apparently, looks aren’t everything.

On Shakespeare and solving mysteries: Fishers do smell sweet but not like a rose. I know this from handling tranquilized fishers when we outfit them with radio-transmitters so that we can learn more about their biology. Oh, how I loved and now miss their smell. Despite the name change, they’ll still smell as sweet. Now the stage is set for another tale in a DNA trail of clues for researchers to follow. Knowing more about fisher evolution will help researchers in thinking about and learning more about their ecology and behaviour so that we can better understand these majestic, but seldom seen, creatures and needs for their conservation.

Cavities in old cottonwood trees and snags provide homes for many wildlife species, including fishers
Cavities in old cottonwood trees and snags provide homes for many wildlife species, including fishers.

 

Fishers are a Species of Special Concern in B.C.

Fishers are a Blue-listed species in BC. Watch for more on my blog about fishers and other wildlife, coming soon!

 

Check Out These Links for Some Great Fisher Photos

To see lots of stunning photos and exciting information about amazing critters that have largely slipped under the media radar for far too long visit Phat Weasels on Facebook:

A page for promoting appreciation, education, and awareness about the weasel family throughout British Columbia Canada, North America, and across the globe!”  https://www.facebook.com/PhatWeasels

My friend and former snow-tracking buddy posted remote camera photos of a fisher family, mom and kits, at their natal den. You can find them at Phat Weasels. Visit: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.287303211409641.1073741826.141628565977107&type=3

 

Reference:

Sato, J. J., M. Wolsan, F. J. Prevosti, G. D’Elía, C. Begg, K. Begg, T. Hosoda, K. L. Campbell, H. Suzuki. 2012. Evolutionary and biogeographic history of weasel-like carnivorans (Musteloidea). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 63:745–757.

 

Hudson Bay Mountain Ski area overlooking the Bulkley Valley
Hudson Bay Mountain Ski area overlooking the Bulkley Valley
You can ski for 4+ kilometers from Hudson Bay Mountain to the valley bottom, a walk manageable in ski boots to downtown Smithers
You can ski for 4+ kilometers from Hudson Bay Mountain to the valley bottom and then a catch a ride or walk to downtown Smithers

 

 

 

 

 

4 Responses

  1. Dad
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    Great work

  2. Deb Wellwood
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    Thanks Dad…now when you can’t find me on SPOT, you know where to look for me :s)

  3. Rich Weir
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    Once you’ve smelled a fisher, you will never go back!
    Great post, Deb – love it (and not just because of the subject).

  4. Deb Wellwood
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    Thanks a lot Rich. I can’t wait until I get to my post on fisher habitat. SOON.

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