Reeking reputation aside, skunks are full of surprises
Body language says it all as a striped skunk nonchalantly emits a whiff to warn off a fox, who takes the hint. “The skunk was not spraying the fox, but the fox did not enjoy the aroma,” says Rolland Gelly, who caught the scene in a park in Montreal, Canada.
IN A WOODED AREA of metropolitan Chicago, three coyotes prowl around a deer carcass. They approach, stop, retreat and split up, circling the meal. One darts in to snatch a bite, then scrambles back, intimidated. By a skunk. “It was hilarious,” says Ohio State University biologist Stan Gehrt, “watching this little animal standing on top of a dead buck, holding a pack of coyotes at bay. The skunk never even sprayed.”
Gehrt is fascinated by the survival tactics and social interactions of skunks, coyotes and other carnivores that share our urban and suburban neighborhoods in often surprising numbers. From 1999 to 2005, he captured 146 Chicago-area skunks and radio-collared 90 of them for long-term tracking. Gehrt continues to mine the wealth of data he gathered and says the popular conception of skunks that starts and ends with “stinky” doesn’t begin to do them justice.
Another skunk researcher, biologist Ted Stankowich at California State University–Long Beach, leads a laboratory that uses both field studies and chemical and statistical analyses to investigate the evolution of defensive strategies in mammals. He’s “amazed at how seemingly carefree” skunks are. “We are just beginning to understand how they perceive natural dangers and how they use the signals and defenses in their arsenal to diffuse most threatening situations.”
While few of us will study legions of skunks, the odds are good that most of us will cross paths with the famously funky beasts at some point. They’re out there—lots of them. Of the world’s 12 known species, the one most likely to stroll through U.S. gardens is Mephitis mephitis, the striped skunk. Inspiration for cartoon icons such as Looney Tunes’ Pepé Le Pew and Bambi’s friend Flower, striped skunks flourish across the continental United States at average densities of five to 13 animals per square mile and range from southern Canada to northern Mexico. These house-cat-sized animals have adapted to habitats from wilderness and farmland to industrial parks and housing developments.
Spotted skunks are fewer in number and smaller—about squirrel sized—but they’re almost as widespread as striped skunks in the United States. Hooded and hog-nosed skunks occupy ranges from the U.S. Southwest to southernmost Argentina and Peru. Two other species live on islands in the Philippines and Indonesia. These far-flung cousins have a lot in common, notably the olfactory defenses that make them nearly predator proof. All carnivores have anal glands that produce smelly secretions used to mark territory, attract mates and issue other aromatic messages. But in skunks these glands have evolved into a potent chemical weapon.
About the size of big grapes, the anal glands of a striped skunk each hold almost an ounce of concentrated musk, enough for multiple blasts. Powerful muscles surrounding the sacks can pump out the oily liquid forcefully enough to douse a target more than 10 feet away. Flexible nipples flanking the anus precisely control the spray.
A skunk may emit a mere whiff of odor to repel a minor annoyance or, when fleeing a predator it can’t see, release a cloud of foul musk that can stop a pursuer in its tracks. For its most intense, targeted attack, a skunk twists into a U-shape so that both eyes and rump confront the threat, then aims a stream of noxious liquid right at its enemy’s face. Gagging, pain in the sensitive membranes of the nose and mouth, even temporary blindness can result from a direct hit. After being sprayed once or twice, predators learn that attacking a skunk is a very bad idea, Stankowich says. Spray victims are likely to approach (or avoid) every other skunk they meet with the caution such repulsive lessons inspire.
With acrobatic aplomb, a spotted skunk displays its “back off” stance, a threat to warn away attackers (right).
Skunks are reluctant chemical warriors, however. When they’re harassed, Stankowich says, skunks issue repeated warnings before deploying their weapon of last resort. They hoist their tails, then stamp their front feet, hissing and lunging at their antagonists. Petite spotted skunks add an acrobatic touch to the “back off!” repertoire: handstands. They tip onto their front paws, balancing with bodies and tails straight up, even charging their opponents while upside down.
A skunk’s distinctive coat issues a warning, too. Striped skunks tend to forage in open areas, where their bold markings broadcast, “Remember me? Keep away!” Spotted skunks, on the other hand, favor dense vegetation where their broken markings make them tough to detect from a distance. But up close their high-contrast coloring makes them instantly recognizable—and would-be predators take notice.
That makes spotted skunks quite unusual. Typically animals either depend on camouflage to hide from threats, or they use conspicuous markings to warn attackers of powerful defenses. “Blend in” or “stand out” have been seen as mutually exclusive strategies, Stankowich says, but his research shows that spotted skunks can cut their risk of hazardous encounters by playing both sides of the visibility game.
Gehrt has documented just how well these multiple tactics work. Coyotes, foxes, dogs, bobcats, mountain lions, badgers and big owls can all eat skunks but rarely do. Gehrt’s research shows that less than 5 percent of skunk mortality is caused by predators.
There are other dangers, of course. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about a quarter of wildlife rabies cases each year are infections in skunks. One outbreak can kill 80 percent of a regional skunk population in less than a year. Though the disease spreads easily among wild animals and unvaccinated cats and dogs, transmission to humans in the United States is very rare and chiefly related to bites from bats, not skunks.
Other diseases, including pneumonia and distemper, along with parasitic infestations, winter starvation and cars all can take a heavy toll. The animals Gehrt tracked included some “super skunks” that lived to be up to 6 years old, “but they were very unusual,” he says. The average lifespan of a wild skunk is only about 3 years.
Skunks can also suffer from a reputation that’s no bouquet of roses. They’re sometimes persecuted as nuisance animals. “People are generally morbidly afraid of skunks,” Stankowich says, “but if you spend any time observing them in the wild you’ll see just how peaceful and noble they are. They go about their business night after night, looking for food, not trying to bother anyone.”
In fact, skunks can be valuable garden allies as they mostly eat insects and small rodents. Feasting on beetles, crickets, grubs, grasshoppers, mice, rats and moles throughout the growing season, skunks are natural pest-control heroes.
Skunks can offer us another favor, too. “All animals, including humans, need ‘enrichment’ in their environments,” says Gehrt—opportunities for learning and connection. “Skunks give us that.” It may seem odd to think of a skunk’s pungent burnt-garlic-plus-rotten-egg odor as enriching, but Gehrt believes it is. “The occasional whiff of skunk spray reconnects us to the incredible importance of smell in the lives of other animals,” he says. “It reminds us that skunks are out there, even when we don’t see them, and that we all share the same world.”
Watching skunks (such as this striped skunk in California) can be an odor-free delight. “Skunks don’t spray unless they absolutely have to,” says researcher Ted Stankowich. But watch from a respectful distance and heed the animals’ warning signs. Here are a few more tips to keep skunk relations cordial in your yard:
Limit access. To keep skunks from adopting your outbuildings or crawl spaces as ready-made dens, screen openings in your foundation and under porches and keep garages and sheds closed at night.
Hide the food. Skunks will happily snack on accessible treats such as pet food or open garbage, so remove these temptations to keep skunks from habituating to a regular nighttime buffet.
Avoid encounters. Keep pets indoors between dusk and dawn, when skunks are most active. Also, keep pets current on their rabies vaccinations and teach your children to observe wildlife from afar.
Safely remove the smell. If a visiting skunk does let fly, don’t panic—and leave the tomato juice in the kitchen: That familiar folk remedy doesn’t really work. Instead, soak stinky skin or pet fur with a mix of four cups of hydrogen peroxide, a quarter-cup of baking soda and a teaspoon of dish soap. Leave it on for about five minutes, then rinse.
Lynne Warren wrote about conservation photography in the December–January 2017 issue.
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