Japanese marten

Japanese marten
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Mustelidae
Genus: Martes
Species: M. melampus
Binomial name
Martes melampus
(Wagner, 1841)
Japanese marten range

The Japanese marten (Martes melampus) is a mammal in the marten genus most closely related to the sable. It is half a meter (1½ feet) in length on average, not counting a 20-centimeter-long tail (7.9 in), and between 1,000 and 1,500 grams (2.2 and 3.3 lb) in weight. Males are generally larger than females. The pelage varies in color from dark brown to dull yellow with a cream-colored throat.[2]

Both males and females are territorial, the size of each individual's territory depending on food availability. The Japanese marten is omnivorous, preferring meat from fish, frogs, and small birds and mammals, but consuming insects, fruit, and seeds when necessary.[2]

There are two confirmed subspecies of Japanese marten:

Reproduction and life cycle

Japanese martins have a breeding season which occurs between March and the middle of May. They usually produce one offspring; however, they can have anywhere between one and five kits per mating season. The offspring are born blind and deaf. As a mammal, the female produces milk for her young offspring, but by three to four months of age the kits are able to hunt and soon leave their mother. Sexual maturity occurs between one and two years. Average lifespan in the wild is unknown although a specimen in captivity live for a little more than twelve years.

After reaching maturity, young martens often try to establish their territory. They mark their territory with scent marking.[2]


Japanese martens live in boreal forests in much of Japan's mainland. In the winter, martens tend to go to the forests where they can get the most prey. They tend to choose well-established forests because of the ways the creatures have specialized and due to their long life-span. As such, it has been suggested that martens are valuable in accessing the health of the forest. However, in the summer, their habitat and diet become much more generalized allowing them to live in a much more varied environment.[4]

Benefits to the environment

One of the biggest roles martens play in the environment is seed dispersal. Many fleshy fruits rely on birds and bats to disperse their seeds; however, in more northern climates the numbers of these species decrease. With the decrease of these species, there also comes a decrease in seed dispersal. In these areas, carnivores with omnivorous diets, like the Japanese marten, can become the vector of dispersal. These carnivores prove to be good dispersal mechanisms because they often have large home ranges leading to dispersal farther from the parent. Furthermore, since the carnivores are usually larger than birds or bats, the can carry and disperse larger seeds. A study in 2000 found that around 62% of the Japanese marten's feces contained one or more seeds.[5]

Effects on humans

Japanese martens have both positive and negative impacts on human activities in their habitats. As a positive, the martens prey on Lepus brachyurus which lower the quality of trees by their browsing. However, in their prey also can include many insects which aid agriculture.[2]

Threats and conservation efforts

The biggest threat to the Japanese marten is the logging industry which targets its preferred habitat of well established forests. The industry often clear cuts forests quickly destroying the creatures habitat without allowing it to recover. This practice also causes insularization of marten populations causing changes in foraging behaviors and the decrease of the genetic pool.[4] Furthermore, pine plantations in their ecosystems do not contain important food for the martens.[2]

Steps have been taken to try to conserve the martens. The most common are regulations on trapping.[4] The species has been named as a Natural Monument Species in Japan in 1971 calling for attention to the species vulnerability. The species also has been given legal protection on the Tsushima Islands.[2]


In the Iga region, Mie Prefecture, there is the saying, "the fox has seven disguises, the tanuki has eight, and the marten has nine," and there is a legend about how the marten has greater ability in shapeshifting than the fox (kitsune) or tanuki. In the Akita Prefecture and the Ishikawa Prefecture, it is said that if a marten crosses in front of someone, it is an omen for bad luck (the weasel has the same kind of legend), and in the Hiroshima Prefecture, it is said that if one kills a marten, one would encounter a fire. In the Fukushima Prefecture, they are also called heko, fuchikari, komono, and haya, and they are said to be those who have died in avalanches in disguise.[6]

In the collection of yōkai depictions, the Gazu Hyakki Yagyō by Sekien Toriyama, they were depicted under the title "鼬," but this was read not as "itachi" but rather "ten,"[7] and "ten" are weasels that have reached several years of age and became yōkai that have acquired supernatural powers.[8] In the depiction, several martens have gathered together above a ladder and created a column of fire, and one thing that was feared about them was that if martens that have gathered together in this form appear next to a house, the house would catch on fire.[9]


  1. Abramov, A. & Wozencraft, C. (2008). "Martes melampus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2008. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 21 March 2009. Database entry includes a brief justification of why this species is of least concern
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 "Martes melampus (Japanese marten)". Animal Diversity Web. Retrieved 2016-03-31.
  3. "Martes melampus (Japanese Marten, Tsushima Island Marten)". www.iucnredlist.org. Retrieved 2016-03-31.
  4. 1 2 3 Buskirk, Steven (September 1992). "Conserving Circumboreal Forests for Martens and Fishers". Conservation Biology.
  5. Otani, Tatsuya (2002). "Seed dispersal by Japanese marten Martes melampus in the subalpine shrubland of northern Japan". Ecological Research. doi:10.1046/j.1440-1703.2002.00460.x.
  6. 村上健司 編著 『妖怪事典』 毎日新聞社、2000年、230頁。ISBN 978-4-6203-1428-0。
  7. 高田衛 監修 稲田篤信・田中直日編 『鳥山石燕 画図百鬼夜行』 国書刊行会、1992年、50頁。ISBN 978-4-336-03386-4。
  8. 少年社・中村友紀夫・武田えり子編 『妖怪の本 異界の闇に蠢く百鬼夜行の伝説』 学習研究社〈New sight mook〉、1999年、123頁。ISBN 978-4-05-602048-9。
  9. 多田克己 『幻想世界の住人たち IV 日本編』 新紀元社、1990年、249頁。ISBN 978-4-9151-4644-2。

Further reading

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