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Swimming capabilities of stoats and the threat to inshore sanctuaries

Stoats (Mustela erminea) are small carnivorous mammals which were introduced into New Zealand in the late 19th century, and have now become widespread invasive pests. Stoats have long been known to be capable of swimming to islands 1-1.5 km offshore. Islands further out have usually been assumed to be safe from invasion, therefore routine stoat monitoring on them has been considered un-necessary. Recent incursions, including a stoat found on Rangitoto Island (3 km offshore) in 2010, and another which was deduced to have reached Kapiti (5 km offshore) in 2009, along with distribution modelling and genetic studies, strongly support the proposition that stoats can swim much further than 1.5 km. Acceptance of this hypothesis depends on estimating the probability that such small animals could indeed swim so far unaided. This paper reports the results of a project designed to assist this debate by recording the paddling action, speed and minimal endurance of nine stoats observed (once each) swimming against an endless current in a flume at the Aquatic Research Centre, University of Waikato. Four of the five males and two of the four females could hold a position for at least five minutes against the maximum current available, averaging 1.36 ± 0.336 km/h. In steady swimming against a current of c. 1 km/hr, they all used a rapid quadripedal paddling action (averaging 250 strokes/min, stronger with the spread forepaws). Four of the nine swam strongly for >1 h, including one female who covered 1.8 km in nearly 2 h non- stop. Results from such artificial conditions cannot be conclusive, but support suggestions that wild stoats could indeed swim much further than 1.5 km, hence we conclude that the “risk zone” for stoat reinvasions of inshore islands has been seriously under-estimated.
Journal Article
Type of thesis
King, C. M., Veale, A., Patty, B., & Hayward, L. (2014). Swimming capabilities of stoats and the threat to inshore sanctuaries. Biological Invasions, 16, 987–995.
Springer Verlag
This is an author's accepted manuscript for an article published in the journal: Biological Invasions © 2014 Springer Verlag.