The Fisher is a fantastic, yet often anonymous hunter in the North American boreal forests. Its scientific name, until 2008 was Martes pennanti, as it was considered to be a relative of the martens that are also in the genus Martes. But after reclassification to the genus Pekania, it is now scientifically known as the Pekania pennanti. It is the only species within this genus. Commonly known as the Fisher, but also called the Fisher Cat by many.
Ever wondered why it’s called a ‘Fisher Cat’? It’s a mystery! Some believe early American settlers named them after the European polecat, known in French as ‘fichet.’ This would make sense, as the Fisher is neither a cat, nor does it eat fish!
Appearance & Characteristics of the Fisher Cat
The Fisher is a very effective hunter, perfectly adapted to its environment. It has a beautiful fur, and as such have been a target for the fur trade since the 1800’s. In terms of size, the fisher ranges from 2.5 to 4 feet, it’s deceptively large for a tree-dwelling creature. They are sexually dimorphic, with males measuring much larger than females on average.
Males average between 90–120 cm (3 – 4 feet) in total length, whereas females average between 75 – 95 cm (2.5 – 3.1 feet). Males, being the heavier ones, tip the scales at between 8-13 lbs, while females are much lighter, weighing between 4-6 lbs on average. Their luxurious dark brown to black fur is thicker are more substantial in winter, less so in spring. Their bushy tail, and pointed face give them a distinctive appearance. And those sharp retractable claws? They’re perfect for gripping tree bark during their arboreal adventures.
Like the Coati, fisher cats have very flexible ankle joints, able to rotate them by 180 degrees. This gives them exceptional mobility in the trees, and the ability to climb down a tree head first.
Distribution – Location and Habitat
Fishers are true forest dwellers. They exist solely in the vast expanse of the North American woodlands. From the Sierra Nevada mountains in California to the dense woods of the Northeastern Appalachians. They are more common in Canadian forests coast to coast, from British Colombia right across to Nova Scotia. Their preferred homes are dense, mature forests, especially conifer and boreal forests and those with plenty of fallen trees, logs, and thick underbrush where they can hide and hunt.
Younger and less dense forests are not as suitable for the fisher than old, dense forests with old thick trees. They needs thicker trees for denning and so this is where they are usually found. Historically, as these forests were cleared in the Southern and Eastern parts of their range, and also due to overhunting, their numbers declined in these areas.
Although they are exceptional climbers, and are even known to hunt from the trees, they generally spend most of their time on the forest floor. This is where they find most of their food, either through hunting or foraging.
The Lifestyle & Behaviour of the Fisher Cat
Fishers lead intriguing lives. They are solitary creatures, each individual carving out and defending its territory. They only usually come together during mating season, and this is where males are most active. They are mostly crepuscular animals, being active during dawn and dusk, but some are more nocturnal, preferring the cover of night. Fishers are elusive and are rarely spotted during the day.
Ranges of males and females overlap often, and this is most common in winter when an active range can double in size from around 3 square miles to around 5 square miles. Some ranges can be larger still, up to around 8 square miles. It is the male that is more likely to push the boundary into a females, than the other way around. They are the much larger and more dominant animal.
One of their most remarkable features is their ability to climb. With ankles that can rotate nearly 180 degrees, they can descend trees head-first, a rare ability in the tree-climbing world.
Diet & Nutrition of the Fisher Cat
When it comes to food, Fishers are versatile, and even show remarkable hunting skills, able to take out some formidable foes. Masters of stealth, they can ambush prey like squirrels, mink, otters and their favourite snowshoe hare. However, they are also one of the only species that are capable of hunting and eating the prickly porcupine. They have mastered the art of overcoming the porcupines defences, and are one of their major predators.
They are capable of overcoming prey much larger than themselves too. Evidence shows successful hunts of Canadian Lynx cats, as well as wild turkeys and foxes. They are formidable hunters, with excellent senses and confident climbing dexterity.
While meat is a staple in their diet, they are generally omnivores and are not averse to foraging for seasonal fruits, nuts and mushrooms.
Predators & Threats to the Fisher Cat
Although it doesn’t appear to be a main or regular prey animal for any competing species, the fisher does have its threats. Though not common, larger carnivores like coyotes, mountain lions and bears pose threats. Some birds of prey, particularly golden eagles and bald eagles are also big and brave enough to swoop down and make a meal from a fisher cat. They seem to have a dog-eat-dog relationship with bobcats, where they are both found in the diet of each other.
However, the most significant impact on their populations has historically come from humans. Through deforestation, road accidents, and the large fur trade that encouraged over trapping.
Fisher Cat Reproduction
Fishers mate in spring, usually around April, but a unique biological feature called delayed implantation means kits arrive almost a year later. This form of embryonic diapause is sometimes seen in large mammals, particularly in northern and harsh environments, where to ensure there is enough energy for the pregnancy, the process is delayed until the harsh winter months are passed. The polar bear is one clear example of a large mammal that also delays the pregnancy.
The female will activate the pregnancy at the end of winter the next year, usually mid to late February. After a gestation period of around 50 days, the mother will give birth to a litter of between 1 to 4 babies. The offspring are called kits, and are completely dependant on their mothers for the first few weeks of their life.
Kits are born blind and helpless, but they grow rapidly. After around 3 weeks they are crawling, and by around 2 to 3 months their eyes are open, they are weaned from their mothers milk onto a solid diet and they are able to start climbing. By 5 months, these kits venture out on their own, and by their first year, they’re considered adults.
Lifespan of the Fisher Cat
From birth to adulthood, the life of a Fisher is filled with adventures and challenges. In the wild, they live for about 7. The oldest recorded fisher living in captivity, reached an age of 14, but in most cases 10 years is the ceiling, even in captivity.
Their life transitions from the vulnerable stage of dependent kits to the playful phase of juveniles, and finally, to the seasoned stage of adulthood.
Population and Conservation
Over-trapping in the 19th and early 20th centuries brought the number of fishers in the wild dangerously low, particularly in the southern and eastern part of their range where human impact was greater. However, thanks to conservation laws and dedicated efforts, fishers have made a commendable comeback in many regions.
Populations are considered to be stable, trapping is legal within regulated seasons, and the species is considered to be of ‘Least Concern’ but organisations such as the IUCN.
5 Fun Fisher Cat Facts for Kids
- They’re one of the few predators that can tackle a porcupine without getting quilled.
- Their unique ‘loping gait’ makes them stand out in the animal kingdom.
- Communication is key! They use a series of growls, hisses, and chirps.
- Seasonal fashionistas, their fur changes shade and thickness with the seasons.
- Despite their solitary nature, mothers are fiercely protective of their kits.