The sable (Martes zibellina) is a species of marten, a small omnivorous mammal primarily living in the forest environments of Russia. The name sable appears to be of Slavic origin and entered most Western European languages via the early medieval fur trade. The term has become a generic description for some black-furred animal breeds, such as sable cats or rabbits, and for the color black in heraldry.
The color of the highly valuable fur of sables varies geographically and ranges from light to dark brown, with the individual coloring being lighter ventrally and darker on the back and legs. Japanese sables, in particular, are marked with black on their legs and feet. Some individuals also display a light patch of fur on their throat which may be gray, white, or pale yellow. The winter pelage of Sables is longer and more luxurious than the summer coat.
Sables are found in Russia, from the Ural Mountains throughout Siberia, and northern Mongolia. They are also found on Sakhalin. Their habitat also borders eastern Kazakhstan, China, North Korea, and Hokkaidō, Japan. Sables live in taiga and in dense forests dominated by spruce, pine, larch, cedar, and birch in both lowland and mountainous terrain.
Sables are solitary creatures. They defend home territories that may be anything from 4 to 30 square kilometers (1.5 to 11.6 sq mi) in size, depending on local terrain and food availability. However, when resources are scarce they may move 6 to 12 kilometers (3.7 to 7.5 mi) per day in search of food. They mark their territory with the scent produced in glands on the abdomen. Sables are mainly terrestrial but may climb well if they need to. They are primarily crepuscular, hunting during the hours of twilight, but become more active in the day during the mating season. They hunt primarily by sound and scent, and they have an acute sense of hearing. Sables live in burrows near riverbanks and in the thickest parts of the woods. These burrows are usually dug among tree roots; they are well hidden, and lined by grass and shed fur, but may be temporary, especially during the winter, when the animal travels more widely in search of prey.
Sables are omnivores, and their diet varies seasonally. In the summer, they eat large numbers of hares and other small mammals. In winter, they feed on wild berries, pine nuts, rodents, hares, and even small musk deer. They also hunt ermine, small weasels, and birds. Sometimes, sables follow the tracks of wolves and bears and feed on the remains of their kills. They eat mollusks such as slugs, which they rub on the ground in order to remove mucus. Sables also occasionally eat fish, which they catch with their front paws.
Sables generally mate between June and August. When courting, they run, jump, and "rumble" like cats. Males dig meter-long shallow grooves in the snow, frequently accompanied by urination. They fight each other violently for females. Sables give birth in tree hollows, where they build nests composed of moss, leaves, and dried grass. Litters number 1 to 7 kits, although litters of 2 or 3 are the most common. The gestation period lasts 245 to 298 days. During this time males assist females by defending their territories and providing food. Kits are born with eyes closed and skin covered in a very thin layer of hair. They weigh between 25 and 35 grams (0.88 and 1.23 oz) and average 10 to 12 centimeters (3.9 to 4.7 in) in length. Kits open their eyes between 30 and 36 days and leave the nest shortly afterward. At 7 weeks, the young are weaned and given regurgitated food. They become reproductively mature at the age of two years.
Historically, sables have been hunted for their dark brown or black fur, which remains a luxury good to this day. Their fur has been a highly valued item in the fur trade since the early Middle Ages; sables are generally considered to have the most beautiful and richly tinted pelt among martens. While hunting is still common in Russia, it doesn't pose a serious threat to this species as most fur on the market is now commercially farmed. However, sables do suffer from the loss of their habitat due to the clear-felling of forests, logging, and the development of new oil and gas mines.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total population size of the sable is unknown. However, there are estimated populations of the species in the following areas: Russia - 2.0 to 2.2 million individuals; China - 18,000 individuals; Mongolia - 10,000 individuals. Currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List, and its numbers today are increasing.
Due to their diet habits, sables are very important predators of small rodents in Siberia and northern Asia.