True Colors!

Apr 04, 2002 Comments Off on True Colors!


True Colors!

In the wild, mink come in colors ranging from tawny brown to a brown so deep it’s almost black. The common red fox can also deliver a silver-colored natural surprise, a “mutation” and the gray fox is a near relative of the red. The beautiful Arctic fox changes color for camouflage; a white winter coat darkens to gray for the warm months.

On the farm, it’s different. Recessive and dominant genes carry standard colors from generation to generation but breeding and cross breeding of naturally occurring mutations (color changes) has resulted in farmed animals in colors never seen in nature. This spectrum of color combinations is called color phases but it’s a furry rainbow for the true connoisseur of fur.

By understanding the role genetics play in the coloration of fur, farmers can selectively breed the animals for desired standard colors, and mutant color phases in a selection of tones or hues.

ItÕs All in the Genes

Genes exist in pairs located on chromosomes, which in turn are located in the nuclei of cells. Genes in egg and sperm cells are single since only one member of each pair of chromosomes is passed on to each reproductive cell. When fertilization occurs, the chromosomes, and thus the genes, become paired again; one member of the gene pair comes from one parent and one member comes from the other parent. Which gene is recessive and which is dominant determines the color of the offspring.

Color Is Expressed through Pigmentation

Mink and fox are mammals, and as in all mammals, color is expressed through pigmentation, primarily due to the presence of melanin. Melanin is synthesized, or created, in specialized cells called melanocytes. Melanocytes come from a population of cells, called the neural crest, that is located on the dorsal mid-line (the backbone area) of the early embryo.

There are two related types of melanin: Eumelanin which causes a brown or black color and phaeomelanin which causes a yellow or red color. In the hair, melanin is found in minute pigment granules. The genetics of coat color are largely concerned with the genes that affect the number, shape, arrangement or position of these granules, or the type of melanin they contain.

Wild to Farmed Mink

The mink is a member of the Mustelid family, a group of carnivorous mammals of small to medium size with well-developed scent glands. The mustelids include 67 species of 23 genera from all regions of the world and include the common marten, weasel, polecat and skunk. Most mustelids are known for their long, supple body and are excellent burrowers, climbers and swimmers. The mustelids have well developed anal scent glands and use the secretions for marking territory and some use the scent as a defensive mechanism.

To better understand the range and subspecies of mink, one must look back at scientific records. The Hudson’s Bay Company, founded in 1670, developed a grading system, dividing Canada into 16 areas, and within each of these areas the fur type was described. Early accounts going back to 1777 mention 11 different mink “races” in North America, and by 1930 at least five were classed taxonomically as subspecies of Mustela vison, commonly called American mink, and now renamed Neovison vison.

Farmed mink are now considered domesticated animals, having been raised on farms since 1866, the first being in upstate New York. The three main subspecies that contributed their gene pool to farmed mink include: Mustela vison vison (Quebec, Eastern Labrador and Nova Scotia), Mustela vison ingens (Alaska), and Mustela vison melampeplus (Kenai). Today, it is impossible to differentiate the farmed mink according to the original wild subspecies, so they are generally called descendents of Neovison vison and commonly known as domesticated or farm-raised mink.

If mink are bred on farms for their natural brown colors, they are called “black” mink, while if they are bred for colors other than the standard brown, they are called a “color type” mink and named for their particular color phase.

Mink Rainbows

On mink farms, there are over 12 brown color phases now known with the brown color genes recessive compared to standard brown. The brown color phases in farmed mink vary from almost black to almost white. What occurs in the wild is a guess but in 1930, a trapper named Wolfe caught two mink, a gray male and a standard brown female in Oregon. The gray male was an “imperial platinum” mutant and the standard female carried the imperial color gene.

Black jaguar mink. Photo: Glacier Wear, MT. Click to enlarge.

In 1931, a “silverblue” or “platinum” color mink was documented on a farm in Arpin, Wisconsin owned by W. Whittingham. In May 1944, personal correspondence from a Harry La Due stated, “I have seen white mink, silver sable and pastel mink on farms as early as 1929.” In 1937, a Winnipeg farm owned by M. Pirt had an albino male mink and a Lillie Herper was breeding albinos in the U.S. in 1943, having bought a male and a female from Canada. By 1943, an entire coat was produced from albino mink pelts.

By 1944, silverblue (platinum) mink pelts were sold at auction in New York and topped Russian sable, for a time, as the world’s most expensive fur. In the ’40s, a mink coat of silverblue (platinum) pelts sold for US$18,000!

In 1947, a cream colored (palomino) mutant appeared in Karleby, Finland, while a similar color phase occurred in the U.S.

By the 40’s farmers were breeding mutants together for combination types. Sapphire was one of the first combination type colors and by as early as 1955, a combination of four recessive genes was produced, “Oregon gold” it was called by the proud farmer.

By 1950, a brown mutant with a reddish to mahogany color (pastel) existed on about five U.S. farms.

Dr. R.M. Shackelford, at the University of Wisconsin, was a leader in working out breeding plans which enabled farmers in the U.S. and Canada to raise many of these various mink color types.

In the 1960s, a white mink with black spots appeared in Finland on Petsmo’s mink farm and Boren’s mink farm . This variation became known as a “jaguar type” of mink.

When grading a live mink or a pelt, an expert will look for the following in each color category:


  • Blackness of fur
  • Overall appearance

  • Shade ranging from medium to medium dark
  • Both clear and casty type acceptable
  • Contrast very desirable

  • Pale and light shade with brightness
Blue Iris

  • Shade should range from light medium to medium dark
  • A clear blue color is very desirable
  • Strong contrast

  • Shade should be dark end
  • Clear to blue

  • Pale and light shade with a pink cast
Demi Buff

  • Shade should range from medium dark to dark
  • Clear to blue
  • Contrast desirable

  • Medium shade
  • Clear

  • Very clear with no yellows
Ranch Wild

  • Shade ranges from light medium to medium
  • Red castiness very good
  • Contrast desirable

  • Dark shade
  • Clear in color

  • Light to medium shade (either blue or beige is okay)

Fox Rainbows

In the wild, the common red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is found in a range of hues. Foxes living in the mountains are often light colored while dark reddish-brown foxes are found in the deep recesses of forested areas. The wild silver fox also comes from a recessive gene in the red fox. Reports from 1855 note that 698 wild silver fox skins were exported from North America, making it a fairly common mutation. Blue fox is a blue-gray color type of the Arctic fox (Alopex lagopus), an animal that is light in the winter and a dark gray in the summer.

Photo: Finnish Fur Sales. Click to enlarge.
1. Platinum 2. Golden Crossfox 3. Goldfox
4. Silverfox 5. Fawn Light 6. Golden Island
7. Shadow Bluefrost 8. Bluefrost 9. Whitefox
10. (Blue) Shadowfox 11. Bluefox  

From these wild foxes, Vulpes with Alopex, farmers have bred and cross-bred foxes into a remarkable array of colors, colors that were once upon a time but potential hidden in the wild animal’s genes.

The first attempt at blue fox farming is recorded in 1885 on Prince Edward Island, Canada. In 1887, Canadian trappers and traders were experimenting with red and cross fox pups to develop mutation silver-black foxes while, in Alaska, farmers experimented with white Arctic foxes.

The first farm-raised “Platina” silver foxes appeared in Norway in 1935 and demanded high prices at the auction house, out pricing wild silver fox by many times.

After this, American breeders developed the bluish tinted fox , which was given the registered name of “Platinum” in the U.S. and openly competed with Norway’s “Platina”.

By 1924, a bluish colored fox, a “pearl”, was found on a Minnesota farm but, at that time, registration of farms as “silver fox” farms forced farmers to abandon breeding of such mutations. However, the pearl colors showed up on various farms several generations later and earned a following in their own right. Eastern pearl, Western pearl, Pavek’s pearl, and Cherry pearl were names given excitedly to the new color phases.

Albino foxes, a mutation of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes), are mentioned in the scientific literature as early as the 1930s.

A platinum mutant fox appeared in a silver fox litter in 1933 on Evertsen’s farm in Norway.

A mutant “arctic marble” was born in a silver fox litter at Sverre OmberÕs farm in Norway in 1945. When a red or silver fox gene is added to a marble fox, the mix is calico patterns in red, brown, black and gray.

In 1952, Wisconsin’s Fromm Brothers produced a “burgundy gold” or “cinnamon” fox from recessive mutants. They proudly called it “Golden Glory”, the result of 15 years of breeding.

In 1952, a dark brown “pastel” type fox was born in Norway on Daniel JahrenÕs farm. Low prices for the color resulted in the color phase disappearing. In 1972, an aggressive and nervous pastel color fox mutant was born in a Polish farm. Subsequent breeding effort maintained the color while breeding out the negative behavior traits, resulting in an animal suited to farming.

In the 1980s, fox farmers were excited by a color phase called “fire type”, a series of colors from a pale red or gold to cream or almost white. The gene responsible for the fire types only affects red or yellow melanin, having no impact on the brown or black type of melanin. This fire type gene causes the red or yellow melanin to be bleached to pale red or yellow, cream or almost white, resulting in a stunning color combination.

Over the years, fox farmers have grouped mutant fox colors into four categories:

Recessive mutants: Silver, Pearl, Burgundy, Amber, Fawn Glow, Sapphire, Pearl Amber and possibly Dawn Glow.

Dominant mutants: White Face, Georgian White, Platinum and Arctic Marble. (Red is also a dominant color but is not a mutation.)

Combinations of recessive mutant and dominant mutant genes: Smokey Red, Gold Fox, Dakota Gold, Autumn Gold, Platinum Red, Glacier, Red White Face, Sun Glow, Burgundy Marble and others.

Fire types created by the combination of recessive colors carrying one recessive gene for silver and one recessive gene for Colicott brown: Wild Fire, Fire & Ice, Snow Glow and others.

A Rainbow of Choices

The time, effort and energy which went into developing so many color phases of mink and fox is little understood by the consumer. As with developing an appreciation for the different colors and varieties of fine wines and diamonds, consumers can become discerning in their buying habits when choosing fox or mink garment or trim. The color spectrum available is amazing!


Christensen, Knud
Molecular genetic basis for melanin production, Royal Veterinary & Agricultural University, Copenhagen, Dept. of Animal Science and Animal Health, Division of Genetics and Breeding, BŸlowsvej 13, 1870 Frederiksberg C, Denmark.

Nes, N., Einarsson, J., Lohi, O., Jarosz, S., Scheelje, R. 1988.
Beautiful Fur Animals and Their Color Genetics, Scientifur, 60 Langagervij, DK-2600 Glostrup, Denmark.

Joergensen, G. 1985.
Mink Production, Scientifur, 60 Langagervij, DK-2600 Glostrup, Denmark.

Shackelford, Richard M.
Genetics of The Ranch Mink (Pilsbury Publishers, Inc. in cooperation with Black Fox Magazine, 1950)

Trenholm, B.L.
Genetics of Mink Coat Color, Livestock and Livestock Feed Branch, N.B. Dept. of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Trenholm, B.L.
Genetics Of Fox Fur Color, Animal Industry Branch, N.B. Dept. of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Joergensen, G.
“Mink Production”, Wonderful A-Z ranch mink production encyclopaedia. Available from Klubertanz Equipment Co. in US, and Nairn Enterprises in Canada. (Scientifur, Hilleroed, Denmark; 1985; ISBN: 87-981959-05)



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