An incredible photograph of a least weasel (Mustela nivalis) riding on the back of a European green woodpecker (Picus viridis), captured by amateur photographer Martin Le-May while he was taking a walk with his wife in the Hornchurch Country Park in East London, has gone viral.
According to Le-May, the woodpecker and the baby weasel were fighting for their lives over Hornchurch Country Park. When the woodpecker flew right across the couple, he saw a weasel on its back – and that’s when he snapped the pictures. He told the BBC:
“I heard a distressed squawking noise and feared the worst. I soon realised it was a woodpecker with some kind of small mammal on its back. I think we may have distracted the weasel as when the woodpecker landed, it managed to escape and the weasel ran into the grass.”
Le-May claims the woodpecker and the weasel got roughly 10 feet into the air before landing again, at which point the bird managed to free itself and fly away unharmed. “The woodpecker left with its life, the weasel just disappeared into the long grass, hungry.”
As soon as the photo went viral, doubts were raised about whether or not the extraordinary image was real. However, Hany Farid, professor of computer science at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire who researches digital forensics and image analysis, told the National Geographic that the photo is likely real as there doesn’t seem to be any obvious lighting, color, focus, or quality differences between the weasel and the woodpecker.
“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. 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. Combined, I don’t see any evidence that the photo is not real.”
Wildlife expert Lucy Cooke told Snopes that it isn’t impossible for a woodpecker to fly with the weasel on its back:
“This is a truly extraordinary image. The green woodpecker is a ground-feeding bird, but weasels normally attack rabbits. The woodpecker is not its usual prey. But weasels are fearless. A female weasel weighs less than a Mars Bar but is as ferocious as a lion, so this is why the woodpecker would have been able to take off with it on its back.”
Wildlife presenter Steve Backshall believes there is “no reason to doubt” the photo even though the event is highly unusual. He compared the woodpecker to animals like leaf cutter ants and rhino beetles, which can carry 850 times their body weight. “The weasel is pretty fascinating as well. It can kill things much bigger than itself, so it’s an impressive little creature when you think about its size.”
David Mizejewski, a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation in Virginia, too threw his weight behind the amazing photo:
“While it looks like a bizarre event, it’s really not all that surprising if you know a little bit about these two species. As cute as weasels may be, they can be quite violent. 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. The natural world is filled with wonders, and we have the chance of observing them first-hand if we get outside to experience them.”