Ask almost anyone what they think of skunks and their nose will curl up and they will frown. Personally I kind of like the smell, now don’t get your knickers in a knot, personal preferences are well – personal! So why don’t we explore the life of these common, but maligned, mammals?
A member of the weasel clan, they share DNA with otters, wolverines, martens, mink, ferrets, fishers and badgers. All Mustelids (i.e. weasels) are known as fierce and unrelenting hunters, as they often pursue prey much greater in size than themselves. Of the 12 species of Mustelid in Canada, the skunk is the most anomalous. Its behaviour, appearance, and hunting style are very different than the others.
First of all, it’s shaped differently. It is kind of chubby and waddles when it walks, due its wide stance and broad body. It holds its tail stiffly out behind it, as it walks slowly in a shuffling manner. There is nothing stealth-like about this critter, but it is always on the ready for an interaction with potential foes or food. Its eyesight is very poor and it relies on its sense of smell to detect both prey and predators. The Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis), as it is correctly known, is a medium-sized weasel, with a total length of between 54-77 cm (21-30 inches), and the tail makes up about 30% of that.
They enter a state of torpor in the winter and spend much of the period denned up, often in family groups. Usually, shortly after Christmas, a few males stir and come out for a look around, but soon return to the safety and warmth of the den, until late February, when they emerge in earnest. The females don’t seem to be part of this mid-winter outing.
Mating takes place soon after they emerge in the early spring, and by early May about 6 (with a range of 2-10) babies are born. Born helpless, the kits can’t see or hear and certainly can’t use their musk glands to ward off intruders. However, by the age of 30 days, they are good to go!
Speaking of musk, the skunk has two glands, located on each side of the anus which create their odorous emissions. Through narrow tubes, the musk is pressurized and can be expelled through papillae, over a distance of 3.5 to 5 meters! Many dog owners can attest to the pungency and persistence of this malodorous defence mechanism.
It is widely reported, a skunk can’t spray if its tail can’t be raised, but I wasn’t able to find any good documentation to prove this, so it’s best not to test this theory! What I did find out is, the chemical structure of the musk is complex and is comprised of thiols (i.e. mercaptans), made up of hydrogen and sulphur. There are three different thiols in our Striped Skunk’s musk, but there are also three types of thioacetates. The latter do not have a strong scent, but can acquire one if combined with water. So, when you bathe your pet after a skunk encounter, it actually can smell worse AFTER you clean it. By the way, don’t use tomato juice, that’s an urban legend and doesn’t work. Scientists report, a concoction made up of a liter of 3% hydrogen peroxide, a teaspoon of liquid soap and ¼ cup baking soda works effectively. But be forewarned this may dye hair or fur. Want to avoid being sprayed? Watch for the signs – foot stomping, hissing and tail raising.
The skunk family stays together throughout the summer into the fall, and it is not uncommon to see a small family group foraging on a lawn or open space. As true omnivores, they eat everything (e.g. bird and turtle eggs, small mammals, etc.), but do favour insect prey above all else. If you have White Grubs in your lawn expect a visit from these little fellows. So, next time you see a skunk, stand back and marvel at its defensive ability and breathe in the pleasant aroma!
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.
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Geoff Carpentier is a published author, ecotour guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line, at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.