While trying to think of a mammal to write about, I decided to go get some brain food. On the way home, I spotted a neat little critter running through my neighbour’s yard. It was a skunk, which I found adorable and also fortuitous, as he gave me an idea of what to blog about. Skunks are extremely common in North America, and the most common species is the striped skunk, so that’s what I’m going to write about.
Striped skunks can be found in a wide area in North America, from southern Canada to northern reaches of Mexico. They prefer areas where there is both tree cover and fields, though they will live fully in either of these habitats. They have also become experts at living in suburban and urban areas, sleeping in burrows or under buildings.
You probably know what a striped skunk looks like, if you live in North America. Their black-and-white striped colouring is famous, and serves as a warning for predators and people to stay away. Patterns can vary from skunk to skunk, but usually two stripes run along the sides of the skunk and join on the top of the skunk’s head. White markings also adorn the skunk’s head and tail. Skunks have stubby little legs which are equipped with long claws for digging. Striped skunks are about the size of a house cat, and are the heaviest species of skunk.
Skunks will eat pretty much anything, though they prefer insects and insect larvae. They often dig (sometimes in people’s lawns) for worms and other tasty treats. Vertebrate prey is not uncommon for the striped skunk, including creatures like rodents, frogs, and bird eggs. They also quite enjoy human refuse, as I’m sure many people have discovered. Skunks in northern climes hide in burrows for the winter months, relying on fat reserves to stay alive. Up to half of the skunk’s body weight can be lost during winter dormancy. Before wintering, the skunk builds up fat reserves, often consuming more plant matter in process. Although they are usually solitary, overwintering skunks will often reside in communal dens, presumably because they are nice and cozy.
The most famous aspect of skunks is their ability to spray an extremely unpleasant odour from their anal glands. The musk is a mixture of sulphur, methane and butene chemicals, and can cause irritation and temporary blindness. The musk can be smelled by humans (who have a terrible sense of smell) over a kilometre away from a spray site. Skunks are very accurate with their spray, being able to hit targets at three meters. Skunks store around five to six shots of spray in their anal glands, and need about ten days to manufacture more.
Due to the cost of producing their musk, skunks are usually reluctant to spray. They perform a warning dance to ward away predators. It starts with an arched back and raised tails. If this is ignored, the skunk will stamp its front legs. Occasionally the skunk will move its front legs while backing away, which results in the skunk doing a handstand. If all this is still ignored, the skunk will spray. So if you’re insistent on bugging a skunk enough that it sprays you, you probably deserved it. They are also the leading carriers of rabies, so you should probably stay away from them anyway.
Their foul odour has made skunks an unfavoured prey item for most animals, the exception being the great horned owl. These owls are the main predators of skunks, and no doubt benefit from having very little, if any, sense of smell. One of the main causes of skunk death is traffic, as they have extremely poor sight. Still, these lovely animals (and sometimes pests) are doing quite well, and don’t seem to be going anywhere soon, which makes me happy, because I quite like skunks!
Cover image By Dan & Lin Dzurisin – originally posted to Flickr as Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis) DSC_0030, CC BY 2.0