The American Marten, Martes Americana, also know as the pine marten, is a member of the mustelid family, related to badgers, weasels, mink and otters. They are small, slender mammals known for their soft, shiny coats. The American Marten was widespread across the northeastern United States and Canada until hunting and forestry limited this species’ size and geographic range.
American Martens are small predators with long slender bodies, pointed snouts, large eyes, and small cat-like ears. Their feet have curved, retractable claws and large pads (relative to their weight.) These footpads are insulated by long tufts of hair and make it possible to navigate across deep snow.1
Adult males reach a mature length of 20” to 26.5” (their long, bushy tails account for approximately 1/3 of their overall length,) and weight of 1 lb. to 2.9 lbs. Females tend to be smaller (weighing between .6 lb. to 1.9 lbs.) and lighter in color.2 Their long, soft, shiny coats vary in color between individuals (ranging from a light brown or red brown, to a golden brown or buff yellow,) with hair tending to be paler on their heads and undersides, and darker on their legs and tails. They have a cream patch on their chest.
American Martens are solitary animals and are most active at night. They are most often found alone in the wild and only interact during the mating season. Although solitary, they are also curious animals that have been spotted peaking through windows.3 American Martens do not hibernate and remain active all winter. To keep warm during cold months, martens tunnel beneath the snow and huddle amongst tree roots for warmth.4 American Martens are terrestrial mammals that are somewhat arboreal and accomplished swimmers (they are even capable of swimming under water.)
Home ranges of the American Marten vary in size based on gender, location and food supplies. Males’ ranges are approximately 3 square miles while females tend to establish ranges of less than one square mile. Population densities also fluctuate. A healthy habitat can support a density of .7 martens per square mile, while an unhealthy habitat may only support .2 martens per square mile.5
American Martens have complex systems of communication (chemical, vocal, and physical.) Like other members of the mustelid family, American Martens have anal scent glands that secrete a strong odor used to mark territories.6 They also use scent marking to highlight their arboreal trails. Their vocalizations include huffs, screams, and chuckles. Physical interaction is an important component of mating, and the relationship between a mother and her young. American Martens, like other mustelids, are believed to also communicate through body posturing.
The American Marten has a life expectancy of 17 years in captivity. The life expectancy of wild martens is not well documented; however, females in the wild have been known to breed at ages up to 12 years.
American Martens can be found in mature, temperate northern forests at any elevation. They den in ground burrows, crevices or hollowed trees. Within their habitats, they are vulnerable to hawks, owls, fishers, bobcats, and humans.
American Marten populations are distributed throughout northern forests of North America, from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia to Alaska and the northern Rockies. During Colonial times this species was abundant in the northeastern United States, including New York, Maine, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. However, loss of habitat due to forestry practices has limited the marten’s range. Reintroduction programs that were implemented in certain areas have experienced some success in population recovery.
American Martens are opportunistic feeders. Their diets are mainly comprised of small mammals but may also include seasonal fruit and seeds, fish, birds, insects, and carrion. They are terrestrial hunters who do the majority of their hunting on the ground at dawn and dusk. However, they have been known to chase red squirrels (a favorite dietary staple,) and other arboreal species through the trees. Martens attack their prey with a quick bite to the back of the neck.7 In the winter, Martens tunnel through the snow to hunt below the surface.8
The breeding season of the American Marten occurs between June and August. In captivity, females in estrus have been observed to have between 1 and 4 periods of receptiveness during a breeding season, each lasting between 1 and 4 days. These periods are separated by 6 to 17 days. Females in estrus use scent marking to communicate their sexual maturity and readiness. Their long courtships are active and playful, including wrestling and tumbling, and typically occur with more than one partner.
While gestation lasts for a total of 220 to 275 days, the fertilized eggs only develop for the last month of this period. Although eggs are fertilized immediately after copulation, they do not implant in the uterine lining until around February, in a process known as delayed implantation. A litter of 1 to 5 blind, naked young are born in a den of dried vegetation in late March or early April.
There is not a lot of information regarding parental care in the wild. Because the American Marten is a solitary animal, males are not likely to play a large role in the care of young. However, adult males have been observed with mature females and immature young in the wild, likely their own. Females are known to provide care and nourishment for the first few months of her young’s lives, until she leaves them to have another litter.
The young grow quickly. Their eyes are open by 39 days old and they are fully weaned by 42 days old. By 3.5 months old, the young are fully-grown and are left by their mother, who is ready to mate again.
American Martens reach sexual maturity by 15 to 24 months old.
Notes of Interest
The fur of the American Marten is very valuable. However, over hunting and forestry have greatly diminished populations in parts of their range and pelt collection is now controlled in some areas.9
The American Marten is sometimes incorrectly referred to as the Pine Marten, a name derived from a Eurasian species of marten.