National Geographic News
A photo of a fisher, a type of weasal, in North America.

Fishers are returning to places in North America where they haven't been seen for 200 years.


Jason Bittel

for National Geographic

Published June 30, 2014

They're fierce. They're furry. They're cousins to the weasel. And they could be coming to a suburb near you.

According to a new study, fishers are starting to expand their range in places in the northeastern United States where they haven't lived for some 200 years, including places near people. And their range isn't the only thing that's growing: Recent examinations of eastern fisher skulls show that the predators are becoming bigger than their counterparts out West.

What's a fisher? Well, the first thing to know is that it doesn't eat fish. The name "fisher" is thought to have come from early American immigrants who noted the animal's resemblance to the European polecat, which was also called a "fitchet," "fitch," or "fitchew."

Fishers are long-tailed carnivores in the family Mustelidae. Sometimes called the weasel family, it also includes badgers, otters, and minks. The fisher is found only in Canada and the northern U.S.

In size and attitude, it's somewhere between a domesticated ferret and a wolverine.

"Maybe a little closer to a wolverine," says Scott LaPoint.

A postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, LaPoint is the lead author of a new paper published in Animal Conservation that details how these medium-size mustelids have begun to retake their old territory after centuries of persecution. (The research was funded in part by the National Geographic Society's Waitt Grants program.)

"[Fur] trapping and forest clearing practically wiped fishers out of the U.S.," says LaPoint, "but [they] are now reclaiming much of their historic range" across the northern U.S. and down the Appalachian Mountains.

In the eastern U.S., LaPoint found, fishers have now expanded their geographic range by 119 percent since about 1900. One male was even spotted prowling the streets of the Bronx earlier this month—which means the city's rats, squirrels, and pigeons should be on high alert.

Mustelids in the Middle

Fishers are what biologists call mesopredators, or middle predators. That means they're a link below apex, or top, predators in the food chain. Adult females weigh about 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms); adult males tip the scales at about 12 (5.4 kilograms). Full-grown males can be nearly four feet (1.2 meters) long, though a lot of that is tail.

Fierce and lithe, fishers can pursue prey into tight spaces like underground tunnels or the passages some creatures create beneath winter snow. After they chase down hares and squirrels, they dispatch them with a quick bite to the back of the neck.

Sharp, partially retractable claws let fishers scale trees like a cat. And their hind paws can rotate nearly 180 degrees, allowing them to come back down a trunk headfirst. This last trick is what makes fishers one of the few predators that can take down a porcupine.

Dance of Death

With a nearly impenetrable coat of 30,000 quills, each tipped with a microscopic barb that sticks in flesh like a whaling harpoon, porcupines don't have much to fear from predators large or small. But every defense has its weakness.

"The fisher attacks the head, because the head has no quills," says Uldis Roze, a professor emeritus of biology at Queens College at the City University of New York and a porcupine researcher for more than 35 years. "Of course, the head is crucial to the porcupine. No head, no porcupine."

To avoid the most dangerous parts of a porcupine—the neck, back, and tail—a fisher dances circles around its prey. Each time the low-to-the-ground fisher gets a look at the porcupine's face, it lunges forward and strikes. Repeated bites to the face disorient the victim, cause bleeding, and eventually send it into shock. The fisher then rolls the porcupine over and starts eating through its stomach, neatly skinning the kill to avoid the still dangerous quills.

The process is neither quick—Roze says the lethal dance alone takes 30 minutes to an hour—nor pretty. Often the fisher scalps the porcupine in the process. Roze and a colleague once happened upon a fisher moments after a kill and found a porcupine carcass completely beheaded.

When a porcupine is cornered, it will sometimes jam its vulnerable head against the base of a tree. Any other predator would be at an impasse, facing a wall of quills on every side. But the fisher's special ankles mean it can hop on the trunk and start attacking from above.

The Ecology of Fear

As fishers have been pushing back East, they've also been getting bigger. LaPoint's research evaluated specimens from across the U.S. and found that eastern fishers now have larger skulls than those examined in the American West and Midwest.

This is what biologists call directional selection. In this case, a random mutation of genes produces a few fishers with slightly larger skulls. That may allow them to take down their prey more efficiently or target larger prey. Over time, as the bigger-skulled fishers keep passing on their genes, the new genes become the norm.

According to one of LaPoint's co-authors, Roland Kays, the lab director at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and a professor at North Carolina State University, "Finding that fishers are evolving a larger body size and that they're eating larger prey really shows that they're starting to move into the larger predator space."

Around the same time that fishers were disappearing, aggressive antipredator campaigns sought to kill off wolves and mountain lions. As this study and others illustrate, we're still trying to understand the effects.

Kays says the absence of apex predators—and the effect it's had on fisher size and range—constitutes an interesting ecological phenomenon.

"We call it the ecology of fear," he says. "If you have a predator that you're afraid of, you use the landscape in different ways."

For a fisher, that would mean avoiding risky places like clearings or foraging only when it knows that apex predators won't be around. But no predators means no pressure—or competition.

Fisher Kings

Whether they're roaming around the Bronx or figuring out ways to cross highways, fishers are thriving in part because they're highly adaptable. Human development presents certain opportunities, such as backyard bird feeders, farmers' fields, highway roadkill, and neatly groomed parks. "Think of all those naive squirrels!" says LaPoint.

"Fishers have been able to recover right under our noses," says Kays, who has fitted more than a dozen with high-resolution GPS collars and followed them all over suburbia. "A lot of people don't realize how common they are, or that they're even in the forests around their houses, because they keep this low profile."

Their comeback, he adds, "shows the resiliency of nature, and the ability of animals to adapt to modern conditions and make the best of it. [Fisher's are] a good conservation story."

Of course, porcupines might feel differently.

sandra hill
sandra hill

Ask a farmer how they feel about fishers. Ask anyone who lives in their range. I'm a live and let live type, and fishers are the only animals I'd shoot. Saw one up close and personal three years ago, killing a large, fit cat. In the daytime. Yards from the farmhouse. Not scared at all of me. Only turned and left (not running) when I picked up a broken tree bough and used it like a St. Louis slugger on him. Fisher kept looking back over its shoulder as if wondering if it could take me. Cat died. Told a horsewoman about the incident and she told me one dropped onto one of her horses from a tree and tried to take her horse down, clinging onto its neck. She also rescues pit bulls and said she wouldn't put her money on one of her dogs if it ran up against a fisher. So yeah, they take cats. And dogs. And after that incident, I wouldn't let my friends leave their toddler outside on the lawn in her playpen unless we were within a few feet. 

Oh, and they kill a lot more than they can eat. Four porcupines in a horrific heap at the base of a tree, rotting. Only one eaten. Really don't like this animal, and it's the only one I can say that of. 

Karen Stevenson
Karen Stevenson

But not so good for the mountain lion or the wolf - which is why these Fisher guys are getting bigger - no large predators left - the same old story all over Earth. No large predators = shift in ecosystem dynamics. What about in a few years from now when they're really bold around town? Humans have an intolerant and highly reactive way about on..... I say enjoy it while it lasts Fishers.

Juma Mohamed Lenin
Juma Mohamed Lenin

I'm very happy being with you  I believe that I'm going to learn many new things

Michael Lisle
Michael Lisle

Sounds like a solution to the rat problem in New York City!!!!

chuck naulty
chuck naulty

A while back there was an interview on local tv(northeastern pa.)with a game warden who said the game commission was going to transplant fishers to the area.  The woman reporting the story asked what they ate and the warden said squirrels,  birds and their eggs(since they can climb trees),  and other small animals.  She asked him what advantage there was to transplant them and he smiled and that was the end of the story.  Typical Pa. game management.

Evan Keith
Evan Keith

"Of course, the head is crucial to the porcupine. No head, no porcupine."

Indeed.  I never realized how much the porcupine and I had in common.

Ellen Peck
Ellen Peck

They are all over the place, in VT in abundance.  

Please also be careful with your cats, dogs, rabbits, chickens, ducks and any other domesticated animals we keep... especially during fishers' chief hunting hours, dawn and dusk.  They will also take a cat right out of a (screened) window sill.  They have a cry like a peacock, some say a child... 

...and maybe doublecheck your tree hollows...tho not too close!    

mac good
mac good

they can "scream" sounds like a lady

sounds very disturbing!

muskoka on ca

Josiah Middleton
Josiah Middleton

@Deddy Hadinata 

On 'Wild Scene Investigation' there was a town that's cats were being taken and never seen again. There were Fishers around, and they came to the conclusion that they will attack cats on the odd occasion. But the main suspect were Great Horned Owls, if i recall correctly.

So it has the potential to, but not often

thomas smith
thomas smith

how about training fishers to pursue rats,  or breeding them to prefer rats for dinner!!

Steve Henrich
Steve Henrich

@Michael Mc Donald they can have all the feral cats they want!  Am sure the song bird population is STILL more vulnerable to cats than fishers!


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