Skunks are small North American mammals that share the carnivore family Mustelidae with weasels, otters, badgers, and the honey badger. They are distinguished from those other animals by their striking black and white color and their long-haired, fluffy tails. They are about the size of domestic cats.
While many animals have anal glands that give off sharp odors, the skunks are the best known for this trait. They have two sets of glands located by the rectum, into which the glands discharge an evil-smelling yellow fluid. Whether or not the contents are released is completely under the control of the animal. In the skunks normal activity, heavy musk-scented fluid is released with solid waste so that other animals can identify it.
When the animal is frightened, it can explosively release the musk, which, along with stamping its feet and turning its back, tells a predator to back off. If it lets go, it has quite accurate aim—preferably into the enemy's face—for a distance of more than 6 ft (2 m). Foxes will usually be driven away by the spray, but some large owls are able to just ignore the odor and will attack the skunk anyway. The skunk is forced to spray using up one of its reportedly one to eight shots of musk. When they are gone, the animal no longer has a defense. It is vulnerable until its body has time to produce more musk.
The spotted skunks (two species in genus Spilogale covering most of the United States) have one more defense warning in their arsenal. After waving its fluffy tail, a spotted skunk does a handstand from its front feet, arches over, and then sprays backward.
The common spotted skunk (S. putorius, its species name means "stinker") has just a small white patch on the forehead, and the lengthwise white stripes are broken up into numerous spots of white. The end of the very large tail is white. These skunks are smaller than the others, with the pygmy spotted skunk (S. pygmaea) perhaps no more than 8 in (20 cm), including the tail.
Skunks eat primarily small rodents, insects, eggs, and fruit. They dig out their food with fairly long claws on their front feet. They usually live near farms and even in suburban areas because they are so good at hunting rodents. However, they are likely to go after poultry, too.
They make dens either in other animals' burrows, under rocks, or in hollow logs. During a cold winter, they spend a great deal of time lazing in their dens, but they don't truly hibernate. During the rest of the year, they sleep in their dens during the day and forage at night.
A single dominant male skunk will have a territory that includes the smaller territories of several solitary females. Most unusually, the female skunk does not ovulate, or produce eggs, unless she is being vigorously copulated with. The mating act goes on for an hour or more, giving her body time to produce the egg that is fertilized. In some skunks, but not all, the egg may float freely in the uterus, waiting until outside conditions are just right before it implants and begins to develop. Actual gestation takes about a month. Usually three to six babies are born. The male plays no role whatsoever in raising the young. A young skunk has the ability to spray by the time it is one month old. Born in late spring, the babies are usually out on their own by fall. If a skunk can survive rabies and automobiles, it may live to be seven or eight years old.
In the United States, the chief problem with skunks is not their odor but the fact that they are the main carrier of the very serious disease called rabies. A rabid skunk does not give the warnings that other skunks do. They just attack with their teeth whenever they get within range of something moving.
The most common species is the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis meaning "terrible smell") of southern Canada south into Mexico. It has two white strips from the crown of its head, down the length of its back. A narrow white strip runs down its face from its forehead to its snout. The hooded skunk (M. macroura) lives in Arizona, Texas, and south into Central America. Its broad white stripe continues into a completely white tail.
Five species of hog-nosed skunks (Conepatus) live from Colorado down into Argentina. They lack the white strip that goes down the nose of all other skunks, and their hairless noses are narrow and project forward into a pig-like snout. They use this snout to root into soil for the insects and other invertebrates that they eat. Hognosed skunks have much coarser fur than the other skunks, which have often been hunted for their soft fur.
Green, Carl R., and William R. Sanford. The Striped Skunk. Wildlife Habits and Habitats series. New York: Crestwood House, 1985.
Knight, Linsay. The Sierra Club Book of Small Mammals. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books for Children, 1993.
Skunks and Their Relatives. Zoobooks series. San Diego, CA: Wildlife Education, Ltd., 1988.
Jean F. Blashfield