The discovery last week of a dead mink on the side of an Edgartown road has brought on a furor of questions over whether a mink population still exists on the Vineyard.
The discovery of the carcass opens an environmental question that offers no immediate answer.
Gus Ben David is on the case. One of the Island's top naturalists with an expertise that spans the Vineyard's natural kingdom, Mr. Ben David received the dead mink last week from a friend. His detective work has just begun.
Mr. Ben David, who runs World of Reptiles and Bird Park, is a retired director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society's Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary. His telephone routinely rings when somebody has found an oddity from the natural world on the Island.
On Feb. 22, he received the dead animal from Joey Andrade, who thought the carcass was a dead ferret.
For Mr. Ben David, in all of his 63 years on the Island, this was his first encounter with a Vineyard mink.
Although minks once populated the Island, that was almost 200 years ago. The animals, along with many other varieties, were removed from the Vineyard by the early 1800s. For a few years prior to World War II, minks were raised commercially on the Island.
Mr. Andrade found the carcass on the side of the Edgartown/West Tisbury Road near the Oyster Pond access road in the early morning of Feb. 22 as a fresh kill. The animal was dark brown, almost black. There was a tiny patch of white hair under its chin.
Mr. Ben David said when he received the carcass, that of an adult female, he began making phone calls. He called friends at the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. He called a former colleague and friend, Bob Prescott at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary on Cape Cod, where minks are starting to reappear.
The intrigue increased as Mr. Ben David talked to his colleagues. Are there other minks on the Island? And if so, why haven't they been seen before?
Part of the mystery may be tied to the shyness of the animal. Minks are nocturnal animals and compared to otters are far more elusive. A naturalist might see an otter on the side of a pond in the daytime; but it is very unusual he'll see a mink even if there are a couple around. Minks travel at night. They have acute senses and are not easy to approach.
Like their weasel cousin the otter, minks reside close to the water and will feed on water creatures. Unlike the otter, minks will feed inland.
"Minks eat everything: fish, frogs, snakes, turtles, birds, mice, rats and chickens," Mr. Ben David said. "They are a highly capable predator and are a menace for people who raise animals. To the agriculture community they are a pain in the neck."
And that is why centuries ago they were purposefully eliminated from the Island, or thought to be eliminated here, along with skunks and raccoons.
By the early 1800s, Mr. Ben David said, minks no longer could be found on the Vineyard.
"Those were the prime years when there were 60,000 sheep on the Island and there was no habitat," he said. "All the land was open and there were no forests." And up until the 1930s, minks weren't seen again.
Mr. Ben David said he is doubtful this mink is a direct descendant of the early minks.
"The lowest possibility is that it is precolonial," he said. "That population would have grown to be conspicuous. A lot of men, Craig Kingsbury-era men, did trapping of muskrats years ago. As farmboys, years ago, that is how you made extra money. I never heard any one of them report trapping a mink."
This dead mink is more likely a descendant of minks that were raised in the 1930s and 1940s, when they were raised commercially for breeding and for their fir.
"I would prefer to err on the side that this mink was part of a remnant population of commercially raised minks. I think that is the strongest possibility," Mr. Ben David said.
Atherton C. Smith of Vineyard Haven started raising minks in 1938 on Franklin street. And a Gazette article reports that Mr. Smith announced the birth of six litters of mink kittens, with more to come in May of 1942.
Then there is Mink Meadows, which today is known more for golf balls than pelts. Further, a large commercial mink operation existed in the Lambert's Cove Road area.
Allan Keith spotted the last known wild mink on the Vineyard on July 12, 1960. He wrote about it in the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society Intelligencer: The Mammals of Martha's Vineyard.
There is another possiblity, though unlikely. Mr. Ben David said it could be a prank. Or, Mr. Ben David said: "Maybe somebody brought one over a few years ago and let it go."
So, he'd like a little more help from Island naturalists and their friends. Others may be on the Vineyard and they could have eluded detection because no one thought they were here.
Those that have been spotted may have been mistakenly taken for the invasive Martha's Vineyard skunk. More and more Island skunks lack the white stripe, Mr. Ben David said. Those thinking they are seeing a baby skunk running across the lawn may be seeing something else.
Minks have a distinctive weasel movement. Their backs curl as they run, while a skunk's back doesn't.
Mr. Ben David said he'd like to hear from anyone who might have seen a mink. And this is the time of year when minks would be out.
"This is their breeding season, so they may be more mobile," he said. "You may see them now through the end of March."