Weasel Rides Woodpecker in Viral Photo—But Is It Real?

Experts weigh in on a photograph of a least weasel attacking a European green woodpecker in flight.

Can weasels fly? According to an image captured by amateur photographer Martin Le-May, they can if they hitch a ride on the back of a woodpecker.

The picture shows a least weasel (Mustela nivalis) clutching on the back of a European green woodpecker (Picus viridis), likely as a result of a predatory attack gone awry. (Watch: "Hoarders: Acorn Woodpeckers.")

Le-May told BBC News he snapped the photo Monday afternoon while visiting Hornchurch Country Park in East London. In fact, his presence may have saved the bird's life.

"I think we may have distracted the weasel, as when the woodpecker landed it managed to escape and the weasel ran into the grass," he told the BBC.

Is the Photo Real?

As the viral video of the pig rescuing the baby goat taught us, just because something is cute doesn't mean it's real. But is the photo now known on Twitter as #WeaselPecker a fake?

Hany Farid doesn't think so. Farid is a professor of computer science at Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire, who researches digital forensics and image analysis.

Farid said that while the image's low resolution makes performing a detailed analysis difficult, there are several other factors to consider. For starters, because the weasel is virtually hugging the woodpecker, forging such an image would be extremely challenging.

"This would have required a nearly perfect and coincidental alignment of the two animals in their original photos so that they could be composited together," said Farid. "This type of forgery is therefore more difficult to create than, for example, two animals simply standing side-by-side."

The fact that Le-May has posted several other photos of the scene is another indicator that the images are probably real, because it would be even more problematic to consistently alter two or more photos.

Finally, Farid said there doesn't seem to be any obvious lighting, color, focus, or quality differences between the weasel and the bird.

"Combined, I don't see any evidence that the photo is not real," he said.

Least Weasel in Flight, Afternoon Delight

If the image isn't a forgery, then what circumstances might have led to a weasel and woodpecker recreating the story of the scorpion and the tortoise?

"While it looks like a bizarre event, it's really not all that surprising if you know a little bit about these two species," said David Mizejewski, a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation, in Virginia.

Mizejewski said European green woodpeckers feed on ants, which means they spend a lot of time on the ground. This type of foraging behavior makes the birds vulnerable to attack from predators—in this case, a hungry weasel.

Least weasels are carnivores, and while they typically take down mice and voles, these tiny predators have also been known to prey upon animals much larger than themselves, including rabbits, frogs, and birds. (Watch a clip from "The Secret Life of Predators.")

"The least weasel's signature move is to sever the spinal cord of its prey with a bite to the neck, which is exactly what we're seeing in the photo," said Mizejewski.

While the photo itself is amazing, Mizejewski said the truly wonderful thing is that the Le-May was there to document it.

"The natural world is filled with wonders," said Mizejewski, "and we have the chance of observing them firsthand if we get outside to experience them."

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