UM professor Dr. Natalie Dawson uses skull measurements to define marten species

pine marten skull (left) and individual in the wild (right)

Fig. 1. Pine Marten skull (left) and individual in the wild (right)

The size of a small cat, with sharp teeth and paws that allow them to walk on top of snow, pine marten are a small carnivore in the weasel family.  They like hunting mice, voles, grouse, squirrels and snowshoe hares.  They are found in colder regions of North America and have been here since the Pleistocene (think: Ice Age the movie).  Until recently, only one species of pine marten was thought to exist in North America, and the original description of this pine marten was written by Dr. Phil Wright, who started this museum at the University of Montana!  Since then, we have found DNA differences in pine marten to suggest there are actually two different species of pine marten in the forests of Montana!  We are currently using the museum specimens at the University of Montana Philip Wright Zoological Museum to identify the presence of these two species using a tool called “morphometrics” where we look at differences among skulls to see if we really do have two species of pine marten in Montana.  We use a combination of photographs and digital imagery to decipher these differences.  Why are scientists interested?  These two different species seem to be hybridizing, which might mean that climate change is pushing these two species of pine marten into close proximity, and by understanding how different species are in the wild, we can understand more about the possibility of species hybridizing in response to climate change.  Next time you walk in the woods, be sure to look for the tracks of pine marten in the snow, or a glimpse of their tails in the trees!