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Weasels, badgers, skunks, and otters: An entry from Thomson Gale's Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia by Serge Larivière, PhD

Striped Skunk

Scientific Name: Mephitis mephitis
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Mephitidae
Genus: Mephitis
Species: mephitis

Skunk Introduction

Skunks in your yard and gardens could be one (1) of four (4) species that live in the United States. These include the Striped, Spotted, Hooded and Hog-nosed Skunks with several sub-species in each group. By far, the most common in the United States are the Stripped and Spotted Skunks.

Skunk Natural History

Skunks are native the Americas with one exception, the Asian Stink Badger. Scientists have only recently added this mammal to the skunk genus. Skunks, themselves, have previously been considered members of the weasel family and only recently have researchers determined that they should be considered as their own distinct family.

Skunks may live up to three (3) years in the wild but in captivity they have been known to live as long as fifteen (15) years. Life out in the wild is hard and experts estimate that nearly 90% of the skunks born in the wild do not survive the first year.

Skunk Physical Appearance

Skunk Appearance

Skunks physical appearance varies between each species and subspecies. For the most part however, all skunks have short, stocky legs. Their feet are much larger in proportion to their legs and have long claws.

With fur as black as night, and white lateral stripes running the length of its back, striped skunks have perhaps the most famous coloring of all of the species. These skunks are often likened to the size of a domestic house cats. They are on average 29 inches long and weigh about eight (8) to ten (10) pounds.

Spotted skunks are noticeably smaller than the striped skunks. They average 21 inches long and weigh only two (2) to 2 ½ pounds. As their name indicates they are more spotted than stripped. Spotted skunks will have white spots and some white striping on top of a base of jet black fur.

Hooded skunks have a distinctive fur “hood” on their necks which is essentially longer fur that appears denser and looks similar to a hood on a jacket. In size they are nearly identical to the striped skunk, but have a very long tail that is nearly the same length as their body. Their back fur color can range from practically all white to all black with two (2) white side stripes.

The Hog-nosed skunk is normally identified by a long snout that is conspicuously missing hair for the last inch or so before the eyes. This is a medium sized skunk weighing in at four (4) pounds and reaching up to 26 inches in length. This species is much different in coloring than the others with a white back and tale and black belly.

Skunk Behavior

Skunks are nocturnal, meaning they are active during the cover of darkness. None of the four (4) species hibernate; however, during the winter months, November through February, they enter a period of inactivity or low activity and do not normally leave their dens. Males may leave the winter dens in search of food during warmer periods of winter.

All skunks, no matter what species, are fairly quiet. They have good hearing, but as can be expected with most nocturnal animals their eyesight is fairly poor.

Mating season for skunks vary by species. Western spotted skunks mate in the fall whereas Eastern spotted skunks and striped skunks mate in the spring. Gestation is a bit different between the species as will with the western spotted skunks actually delay implantation of the embryo. Because of this each species gives birth in the spring. In general, the species will have between five (5) to seven (7) babies.

Perhaps the most famous skunk behavior is its main defense mechanism-scent spraying. This may be the most famous defense mechanism of any creature on earth! The way and frequency of the spray is different depending on what species of skunk you are dealing with.

Striped Skunks will only spray if they are in fear of their life; but they will spray and if you’ve been close by when they have you know how pungent it is. The spray is actually sprayed from glands in the anus of the animals.

Because of their spray mechanism skunks, no matter what the species, skunks are rarely preyed upon by mammals and may only be fearful of large birds including owls and hawks. Occasionally a really hungry coyote or fox, or large, wild cat may prey on the animals. They as with many other small mammals living near human habitation will fall prey to the automobile, too.

Skunk Benefits & Detriments to Humans and the Ecosystem

Skunks have a few habits that may be detrimental to humans, but the most annoying habit may well be their pension for digging under porches and buildings. They seem to have a knack for finding openings in poured wall foundations and working from there. The fear is of course that they will spray under a building leaving a lasting, offensive scent.

On a serious note, skunks are the primary carriers of rabies in most parts of North America. Many experts recommend staying far away from overly aggressive skunks and even reporting such animals to your local animal control agency. This includes observing them roaming around during the daytime on a regular basis.

Skunks aren’t all bad, though. They eat many pests and help to control insect populations as well as rodents that can cause crop damage.

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