Overview

Comprehensive Description

The family Mephitidae, which includes the skunks and stink badgers, is comprised of four extant genera (Mephitis, Conepatus, Spilogale and Mydaus) and 13 species. While many authors have traditionally considered skunks a subfamily (Mephitinae) within Mustelidae, recent molecular evidence indicates that skunks do not lie within the mustelid group and should be recognized as a single family, Mephitidae, a systematic understanding that is accepted here. Stink badgers (Mydaus) have only recently been considered part of the skunk clade (Dragoo and Honeycutt, 1997; Flynn et al., 2005).

Three of the four genera of skunks inhabit the New World, collectively ranging from Canada to central South America; the exception are stink badgers (Mydaus), which occur on islands in Indonesia and the Philippines. Skunks are distinguishable by their conspicuous patterns of black and white stripes or spots, which serve as aposematic signals to would-be predators. Skunks have extremely well-developed anal scent glands with which they produce noxious odors to deter threats. Spotted skunks (Spilogale) are the smallest members of this family, weighing between 200 g and 1 kg. Hog-nosed skunks (Conepatus) reach the largest sizes (up to 4.5 kg). Mephitids have relatively long rostra (although not so pronounced in Spilogale), broad, squat bodies, and often a thickly-furred tail. They have short limbs and robust claws that are well-suited for digging.

Mephitids are mainly omnivorous. They often eat vegetation, insects and other small invertebrates, and smaller vertebrates such as snakes, birds and rodents. Mephitids are nocturnal, and inhabit a range of habitats that includes woodlands, deserts, grasslands, and rocky montane areas. They typically do not occur in dense forest. Skunks and stink badgers are adept diggers, which allows them to find food in the soil as well as to help excavate their dens. Some species can climb trees, either to seek shelter or to find food.

  • Vaughan, T., J. Ryan, N. Czaplewski. 2000. Mammalogy, 4th Edition. Toronto: Brooks Cole.
  • Flynn, J., J. Finarelli, S. Zehr, J. Hsu, M. Nedbal. 2005. Molecular phylogeny of the Carnivora (Mammalia): assessing the impact of increased sampling on resolving enigmatic relationships. Systematic Biology, 54/2: 317-337.
  • Dragoo, J., R. Honeycutt. 1997. Systematics of mustelid-like carnivores. Journal of Mammalogy, 78/2: 426-443.
  • Nowak, R. 1991. Carnivora: family Mustelidae. Pp. 1104-1143 in Walker's Mammals of the World, Vol. 2, 5th Edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Whitaker, J., W. Hamilton. 1998. Mammals of the Eastern United States. Ithaca: Comstock Publishing.
  • Sato, J., T. Hosada, M. Wolsan, H. Suzuki. 2004. Molecular phylogeny of arctoids (Mammalia: Carnivora) with emphasis on phylogenetic and taxonomic positions of the ferret-badgers and skunks. Zoologial Science, 21: 111-118.
  • Kruska, D. 1990. Mustelidae. Pp. 388-449 in B Grzimek, ed. Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals, Vol. 3, 1 Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.
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Taxonomy and Systematics

Dragoo (2009) recognized two subfamilies within the family Mephitidae. One subfamily, Myadinae, includes the two species of Mydaus stink badgers. In the other subfamily, Mephitinae, Dragoo recognized 10 skunk species in three genera: Conepatus, Mephitis, and Spilogale. Dragoo noted that the number of species recognized will likely change as revisions are undertaken using modern methods such as molecular phylogenetic analysis. However, as of 2009, he recognized the following six genera and twelve species of mephitids:

Mydaus (2 species):  Sunda Stink Badger (Mydaus javanensis), from Java, Sumatra, and Borneo (the Greater Sunda Islands), and Palawan Stink Badger (M. marchei), from the island of Palawan in the Philippines. These two species were at one time placed in two separate monotypic genera, the Palawan Stink Badger being placed in a genus Suillotaxus.

Conepatus (4 species [now 3?]): American Hog-nosed Skunk (Conepatus leuconotus), from the southwestern United States south to Nicaragua; Molina's Hog-nosed Skunk (C. chinga), from Peru to Chile, Argentina, and southeastern Brazil; Striped Hog-nosed Skunk (C. semistriatus), with an apparently disjunct distribution from southeastern Mexico to Colombia and Venezuela and northeastern and central Brazil; and Humboldt's Hog-nosed Skunk (C. humboldtii), from Chile and Argentina. Schiaffini et al. (2013) analyzed morphometric and mitochondrial DNA variation and concluded that C. chinga and C. humboldtii are actually conspecific (i.e., belong to the same species) and that environmental variation seems to be responsible for shape and size variation in Conepatus skulls from southern South America. Thus, they considered all the skunks of southern South America (Uruguay, central and southern Chile, and Argentina) to belong to a single species, C. chinga. Similar analyses previously resulted in the collapsing of the putative species C. mesoleucus ("Western Hog-nosed Skunk") into C. leuconotus ("Eastern Hog-nosed Skunk") (Dragoo et al. 2003).

Mephitis (2 species): Hooded Skunk (Mephitis macroura), found from the southwestern United States to Nicaragua, and Striped Skunk (M. mephitis), found across much of Canada and most of the United States south to northwestern Mexico.

Spilogale (4 species): Pygmy Spotted Skunk (Spilogale pygmaea), found in western Mexico; Eastern Spotted Skunk (S. putorius), found across much of the eastern and central United States; Western Spotted Skunk (S. gracilis), found in the western United States south to northern Mexico; and Southern Spotted Skunk (S. angustifrons), found from central Mexico south to Costa Rica. Although the Eastern and Western Spotted Skunks were long considered to belong to a single species, a variety of data suggests that they are at least largely reproductively isolated and should be recognized as distinct species (Kaplan and Mead 1994 and references therein; Kinlaw 1995 and references therein).  Spotted skunks are the smallest of the skunks and are good climbers, able to move up and down tree trunks like squirrels.

General Ecology

Skunks are best known for their extremely enlarged scent glands (modified apocrine sweat glands) at the base of the tail, which they use to squirt a noxious fluid at potential predators. These enlarged scent glands are among the several features that were long considered to be shared with weasels, resulting in the skunks being included in the weasel family, Mustelidae. It is now clear, however, that at least some of the characters traditionally used to unite skunks and weasels are not actually shared, derived characters ("synapomorphies"), as is logically required if they are to be used as evidence that the two groups share a more recent common ancestor with each other than with other carnivorans (Dragoo and Honeycutt 1997 and references therein). Analysis of chromosomes also does not suggest a very close relationship between skunks and weasels. Molecular phylogenetic data have shed considerable light on the phylogenetic placement of the Mephitidae within the order Carnivora and consistently indicate that the skunks and mustelids are not actually closely related. As of 2013, it appears that Mephitidae is basal to a clade consisting of Ailuridae [Red Panda], Procyonidae [raccoons and allies], and Mustelidae, with Ailuridae basal to (Procyonidae + Mustelidae) (Dragoo and Honeycutt 1997 and references therein; Eizirik et al. 2010; Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds 2012; Sato et al. 2012).

All skunks exhibit some degree of sexual dimorphism in skull morphology, but this is most evident in the spotted skunks. Male skunks have a baculum ("penis bone"), although it is smaller than it is in most carnivores, and females have an os clitoris. Dragoo (2009) reviewed the skeletal morphology of the skunks.

Skunks have been recorded from sea level to 4200 meters, but are more common at elevations below around 1800 meters. The family is distributed mainly in the New World, from Canada to Argentina, but the two species of stink badgers are found in the Philippines, Java, Borneo, and Sumatra. New World skunks are found in an extraordinary range of habitats, but generally not in the most arid and hot deserts of the southwestern United States or in arctic Canada (although there are, in fact, reports of Striped Skunks occurring north of the Arctic Circle). Northern Mexico and the southwestern United States have the highest skunk diversity, with three genera and five species, although typically no more than two species co-occur in the same habitat. Striped Skunks do well in urban areas, as do Hooded Skunks in the desert southwest of the United States. Even spotted and hog-nosed skunks may be adapting somewhat to living in urban areas. The only skunks in South America are the hog-nosed skunks, which are found in a wide range of mostly fairly open habitats. In their range in southeast Asia, stink badgers are found mainly in montane areas, although they have been found at lower elevations as well. They can occur in a range of open natural habitats, agricultural areas and secondary forest, as well as in the vicinity of human habitation.

Skunks are opportunistic and omnivorous in their feeding habits. All of them will eat insects, but insects tend to represent an especially large component of the diet for hog-nosed skunks. Hog-nosed skunks spend more time and energy digging for beetle grubs and other insect larvae than do other skunks, explaining the resemblance of their shoulder blades and humerus (upper forelimb bone) to those of American Badgers (Taxidea), which are also committed diggers. Like the nose of a hog, the nose of a hog-nosed skunk is hairless, flexible, and well suited for rooting for food.  Stink badgers forage at night for worms and other invertebrates as well as eggs, carrion, and some plant matter. They are rather slow-moving animals with a top speed around that of a walking human.

Skunks dig holes in the ground or use burrows excavated by other animals. In warm weather, they will nest above ground under cover and some skunks (Hooded and spotted) will even nest in trees. They are generally nocturnal and solitary (although in very cold weather, females may den together, sometimes with a single male, to conserve body heat and body fat). Their natural predators include Coyotes, Bobcats, foxes, and owls.

Striped Skunks are known to be induced ovulators, shedding eggs within 40 to 50 hours of copulation. Dragoo (2009) reviewed the basic reproductive physiology of skunks.

A skunk's spray is a potent defense, but escape is generally a skunk's first choice when it encounters a perceived threat. If escape is not a feasible option, performing a threat display rather than actually spraying may be effective (stink badgers may play dead). If threatened, an American Hog-nosed Skunk can put on an impressive threat display, standing on its hind legs, then coming down on all fours, hissing and flinging dirt backwards and, eventually, stomping its front paws, raising its tail, baring its teeth, and spraying and biting. Depending on the circumstances, a skunk can spray either a cloud of fine mist or a narrow stream, often directed at the face, which can sting and temprarily blind a predator as well as overwhelm its olfactory system. Interestingly, a skunk is  able to avoid spraying scent on its own body except for in exceptional circumstances, e.g., when it has been captured by a predator and is desperately trying to save itself or after being hit by a car.

In much of the world, domestic and feral dogs are the primary reservoirs and vectors for rabies. In the United States, however, extensive vaccination has shifted this status to wild mammals, especially carnivores. Prior to 1990, Striped Skunks accounted for the most cases of rabies reported in the United States, but after 1990 an increase in the prevalence of rabies among Northern Raccoons (Procyon lotor) bumped skunks to #2.

Conservation Status

The populations of most skunk species seem currently to be relatively secure, at least on a global scale. The Pygmy Spotted Skunk, however, is listed on the IUCN Red List as Vulnerable. It has suffered from substantial habitat destruction across much of its range and in some places these animals are killed, stuffed, and sold as souvenirs. For skunks in general, the main threats seem to be hunting by humans and habitat loss. The Palawan Stink Badger is generally common, but may be vulnerable simply because its range is rather limited. The Eastern Spotted Skunk was once common throughout the midwestern and southeastern United States, with consistent annual range-wide harvests of >>100 000 animals. In the 1940s, however, populations crashed and the decline has continued more slowly in subsequent decades, although the cause of this decline is unclear. The species is currently listed by various state agencies as endangered, threatened, or "of concern"’ across much of its range. (Gompper and Hackett 2005)

(Dragoo 2009 and references therein)

  • Dragoo, J.W. 2009. Family Mephitidae (Skunks). Pp. 532-562 in: Wilson, D.E. & Mittermeier, R.A., eds. Handbook of the Mammals of the World. Volume 1. Carnivores. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  • Dragoo, J.W. and R.L. Honeycutt. 1997. Systematics of mustelid-like carnivores. Journal of Mammalogy 78(2): 426-443.
  • Dragoo, J.W., R.L. Honeycutt, and D.J. Schmidly. 2003. Taxonomic status of white-backed hog-nosed skunks, genus Conepatus (Carnivora: Mephitidae). Journal of Mammalogy 84(1): 159-176.
  • Eizirik, E., W.J. Murphy, K.P. Koepfli, W.E. Johnson, J.W. Dragoo, and S.J. O'Brien. 2010. Pattern and timing of the diversification of the mammalian order Carnivora inferred from multiple nuclear gene sequences. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 56: 49-63.
  • Gompper, M.E. and H.M. Hackett. 2005. The long-term, range-wide decline of a once common carnivore: the eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius). Animal Conservation 8: 195-201.
  • Kaplan, J.B. and R.A. Mead. 1994. Seasonal Changes in Testicular Function and Seminal Characteristics of the Male EasternSpotted Skunk (Spilogale putorius ambarvilus). Journal of Mammalogy 75(4): 1013-1020.
  • Kinlaw, A. 1995. Spilogale putorius. Mammalian Species 511: 1-7.
  • Nyakatura, K. and O.R.P. Bininda-Emonds. 2012. Updating the evolutionary history of Carnivora (Mammalia): a new species-level supertree complete with divergence time estimates. BMC Biology 10:12. doi:10.1186/1741-7007-10-12
  • Sato, J.J., M. Wolsan, F.J. Prevosti, et al. 2012. Evolutionary and biogeographic history of weasel-like carnivorans (Musteloidea). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 63: 745-757.
  • Schiaffini, M.I.,, M. Gabrielli, F.J. Prevosti, et al. 2013. Taxonomic status of southern South American Conepatus (Carnivora: Mephitidae). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 167: 327-344.
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Distribution

Three genera of Mephitidae occur solely in the New World. Mephitis ranges from southern Canada to Costa Rica, Conepatus ranges from the Southern United States to Argentina, and Spilogale ranges from Southern British Coumbia in the west, and Pennsylvania in the east, south to Costa Rica. Mydaus is restricted to Indonesia and the Philippines in Southeast Asia.

Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native ); oriental ; neotropical (Native )

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Physical Description

Morphology

Skunks and stink badgers can be recognized by their striking color patters. They are generally black (or sometimes brown) with a prominent, contrasting pattern of white fur on their faces, backs, and/or their tails. Generally, they have either white spots, or a white stripe running from their head, down their back to their tail. Patterns vary within and among species. For example, spotted skunks, as the name implies, have many white spots on a black background. Striped skunks have white dorsal stripes of varying thickness and length that may or may not run through the tail or extend onto the head. Coloration in skunks and stink badgers serves as an aposematic signal to would-be predators. All mephitids have extremely well-developed anal scent glands with which they produce noxious odors to deter threats. The product of the scent glands is secreted through nipples near the anus, and can be projected between 1 and 6 meters towards a threatening animal.

Mephitids have a relatively long rostrum (although it is not so large in Spilogale), broad, squat bodies, and often a thickly-furred tail. They have short limbs and robust claws that are well-suited for digging. Spotted skunks (Spilogale) are the smallest members of this family, weighing between 200 g and 1 kg. Hog-nosed skunks (Conepatus) reach the largest sizes (up to 4.5 kg).

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry

Sexual Dimorphism: sexes alike

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Ecology

Habitat

Members of the family Mephitidae can be found in a variety of habitats, including relatively open forests, grasslands, agricultural areas, meadows, open fields, and rocky montane areas. Stink badgers may even spend some of their time in caves. Mephitids generally do not occur in very dense forests or in wetlands. During the day, skunks and stink badgers seek shelter in burrows or under the cover of rocks or logs. They can dig the burrows themselves, or may use the dens of other species, such as marmots or badgers. At night, skunks and stink badgers come out from their dens and forage. Some skunks are agile climbers (e.g., Spilogale) and can be found in trees in search of food or to avoid predators.

Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; terrestrial

Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland ; forest ; scrub forest ; mountains

Other Habitat Features: suburban ; agricultural

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Trophic Strategy

Members of the family Mephitidae are omnivorous, but a large proportion of their diet consists of animal material. Skunks and stink badgers eat a variety of invertebrates such as worms and insects. They also eat small vertebrates such as rodents, lizards, snakes, birds and eggs. Mephitids forage nocturnally, rooting for and digging up prey as they wander through their home range. In northern areas, skunks greatly increase their fat reserves during the fall. During the winter months these skunks spend most of their time sleeping in dens, but will emerge to forage on warmer days.

Primary Diet: omnivore

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Associations

As omnivores, mephitids potentially impact a variety of plant and animal populations in their respective communities. In particular, many species consume large quantities of insects and rodents. Although skunks have many potential predators, they are not the staple in the diet of any other species. Following one encounter with a skunk, predators often learn not to pursue them. Skunks also harbor and transmit several parasites and diseases such as distemper and histoplasmosis. Rabies is a significant problem for skunks. In the midwestern United States, striped skunks have recently overtaken domestic dogs as the species most commonly afflicted with rabies.

Commensal/Parasitic Species:

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Although their scent gland secretions are a potent deterrent to predators, mephitids are at risk of predation. This is especially true for young skunks. When they are out of their burrows, skunks remain relatively conspicuous and depend on their warning coloration to deter attackers. Known predators of skunks and stink badgers are larger carnivores such as coyotes, foxes, pumas, civets, American badgers, and lynx. Birds of prey, having less well-developed olfaction than mammals, are less susceptible to the skunks' odor, although being sprayed in the eyes is a risk. Avian predators may include eagles and owls. Great horned owls (Bubo virginianus) are known to prey on skunks.

Known Predators:

Anti-predator Adaptations: aposematic

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Known predators

Mephitinae is prey of:
Homo sapiens

Based on studies in:
Canada: Manitoba (Forest)

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
  • R. D. Bird, Biotic communities of the Aspen Parkland of central Canada, Ecology, 11:356-442, from p. 410 (1930).
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Known prey organisms

  • R. D. Bird, Biotic communities of the Aspen Parkland of central Canada, Ecology, 11:356-442, from p. 410 (1930).
  • P. G. Howes, The Giant Cactus Forest and Its World: A Brief Biology of the Giant Cactus Forest of Our American Southwest (Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, New York; Little, Brown, Boston; 1954), from pp. 222-239, from p. 227.
  • Myers, P., R. Espinosa, C. S. Parr, T. Jones, G. S. Hammond, and T. A. Dewey. 2006. The Animal Diversity Web (online). Accessed February 16, 2011 at http://animaldiversity.org. http://www.animaldiversity.org
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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

Skunks are generally not vocal, but sometimes communicate with grunts, growls, and hisses. Olfaction is probably an important part of communication, especially during the mating season. Skunks are not territorial, so do not need to mark territories. Skunks have elaborate visual displays to ward off potential predators, which include holding the tail and body erect, standing on the forepaws, and stomping the ground.

Communication Channels: visual ; acoustic ; chemical

Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical

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Life Expectancy

First-year skunks suffer high mortality (~ 50% - 70%) as a result of predation and disease. Those that survive can live up to 7 years in the wild, although 5 to 6 years is more typical, and up to 10 years in captivity. Humans are a significant threat to skunks, either killing them deliberately to control the spread of rabies, or killing them accidentally while skunks make their way onto roads and highways.

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Reproduction

Generally, skunks are not territorial, and individuals of many species regularly den with conspecifics. During the mating season, males of some species may monopolize several females (e.g. Mephitis mephitis), chasing other males away when they approach. Even when males do not actively defend a group of females, male home ranges often overlap with those of females indicating that individual males may mate with several females in a season.

Mating System: polygynous

Little is known about the breeding biology of stink badgers.

Skunks are seasonal breeders; typically, the breeding season lasts two to three months, but the time of the breeding season varies among species, and within species according to geographic location.

Skunks' gestation period varies among species. In Mephitis and Conepatus, gestation lasts 2 to 3 months. Spilogale gracilis undergoes delayed implantation, in which the fertilized egg does not implant into the uterine wall for a prolonged period of time. Spilogale putorius also exhibits delayed implantation, but only in the northern part of its range. Gestation times (including delayed implantation) in these species can last 250 days or more. Delayed implantation is more typical of species and or populations that live in seasonal climates.

Skunks generally give birth to 2-10 altricial young per year in a single litter. The young are weaned after about two months and become sexually mature late in their first year of life.

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; fertilization (Internal ); viviparous ; delayed implantation

Little is known about parental care in stink badgers. Being mammals, females must invest some care before the young are weaned.

Skunks are born in an altricial state, without fur and with their eyes closed. Although the stink glands are full at birth, young cannot use them in defense until after the first week of life, and thus rely on the mother for full protection from predators. The young are weaned after about two months and can begin foraging on their own. Young will share a den with their mothers, and perhaps other conspecifics. Den sharing is especially important during the winter in northern areas to increase survival.

Parental Investment: altricial ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); post-independence association with parents

  • Nowak, R. 1991. Carnivora: family Mustelidae. Pp. 1104-1143 in Walker's Mammals of the World, Vol. 2, 5th Edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Whitaker, J., W. Hamilton. 1998. Mammals of the Eastern United States. Ithaca: Comstock Publishing.
  • Thom, M., D. Johnson, D. Macdonald. 2004. The Evolution andThe evolution and maintenance of delayed implantation in the Mustelidae (Mammalia: Carnivora). Evolution, 58/1: 175-183.
  • Kruska, D. 1990. Mustelidae. Pp. 388-449 in B Grzimek, ed. Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals, Vol. 3, 1 Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.
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Evolution and Systematics

Functional Adaptations

Functional adaptation

Noxious spray deters predators: skunk
 

The anal sacs of skunks help protect them from predators by spraying a long-lasting, pungent liquid.

   
  "The striped coat of the skunk is a warning to intruders that it can be offensive. If threatened, it will turn its back on the intruder and squirt a nauseous smelling fluid from its anal sacs, often with surprisingly good aim…any animal that ignores its black and white warning coloration may get hit, even at a distance, by a jet of pungent liquid which will cause distress for days or even weeks." (Foy and Oxford Scientific Films 1982:79)
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.
  • Foy, Sally; Oxford Scientific Films. 1982. The Grand Design: Form and Colour in Animals. Lingfield, Surrey, U.K.: BLA Publishing Limited for J.M.Dent & Sons Ltd, Aldine House, London. 238 p.
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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Statistics of barcoding coverage

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD) Stats
Specimen Records: 107
Specimens with Sequences: 105
Specimens with Barcodes: 71
Species: 10
Species With Barcodes: 8
Public Records: 43
Public Species: 4
Public BINs: 5
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Barcode data

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Conservation

Conservation Status

Skunks are generally abundant, but some populations are considered rare or possibly threatened due to demand for their fur. Big Thicket hog-nosed skunks , Conepatus mesoleucus telmalestes, known only from the Big Thicket region of Texas, are considered extinct. Conepatus chinga rex, Molina's hog-nosed skunks from northern Chile seems to have become rare as a result of hunting pressures. The Palawan stink badger is currently listed as vulnerable on the IUCN redlist, due to human induced habitat degradation and fragmentation.

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Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems

Benefits

By far, humans are skunks' largest threat. Humans often consider skunks to be pests due to their smell and their occasional predation on domestic poultry and eggs. As significant vectors of rabies, skunks are often poisoned, shot, or otherwise killed in an effort to control the spread of this disease.

Negative Impacts: injures humans (causes disease in humans ); causes or carries domestic animal disease

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Skunks and stink badgers are generally beneficial to humans because they eat a variety of insect and rodent pests. The pelts of skunks are sometimes traded, although they are currently not in high demand. The fur of Spilogale is considered to be the finest among skunks, although no skunk pelts are considered highly valuable. Occasionally, people eat stink badgers (after removing the stink glands) or use a mixture of their skin and water in an attempt to cure rheumatism or fevers.

Positive Impacts: food ; body parts are source of valuable material; source of medicine or drug ; controls pest population

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Skunk

For other uses, see Skunk (disambiguation).
Not to be confused with Polecat.

Skunks (also called polecats in America) are mammals known for their ability to spray a liquid with a strong odor. Different species of skunk vary in appearance from black-and-white to brown or cream colored, but all have warning coloration.

Etymology[edit]

The word "polecat" (with "pole" from either the French poulet "chicken" or puant "stinking"), which in Europe refers to the wild relatives of the ferret, has been attested in the New World to refer to the skunk since the 1680s.[1] The word "squunck" is attested in New England in the 1630s, probably borrowed from Abenaki seganku[2] or another Algonquian language, with the Proto-Algonquian form */šeka:kwa/ being a compound of the roots */šek-/ meaning 'to urinate' and */-a:kw/ meaning 'fox'.[3] The name of the family and of the most common genus (Mephitidae, Mephitis) means "stench", while Spilogale putorius means "stinking spotted weasel".[citation needed]

Physical description[edit]

Skunk species vary in size from about 15.6 to 37 in (40 to 94 cm) and in weight from about 1.1 lb (0.50 kg) (spotted skunks) to 18 lb (8.2 kg) (hog-nosed skunks). They have moderately elongated bodies with relatively short, well-muscled legs and long front claws for digging.

Although the most common fur color is black and white, some skunks are brown or grey and a few are cream-colored. All skunks are striped, even from birth. They may have a single thick stripe across back and tail, two thinner stripes, or a series of white spots and broken stripes (in the case of the spotted skunk). Some also have stripes on their legs.

Diet[edit]

Skunks are omnivorous, eating both plant and animal material and changing their diets as the seasons change. They eat insects and larvae, earthworms, grubs, small rodents, lizards, salamanders, frogs, snakes, birds, moles and eggs. They also commonly eat berries, roots, leaves, grasses, fungi and nuts.

In settled areas, skunks also seek garbage left by humans. Less often, skunks may be found acting as scavengers, eating bird and rodent carcasses left by cats or other animals. Pet owners, particularly those of cats, may experience a skunk finding its way into a garage or basement where pet food is kept. Skunks commonly dig holes in lawns in search of grubs and worms.

Skunks are one of the primary predators of the honeybee, relying on their thick fur to protect them from stings. The skunk scratches at the front of the beehive and eats the guard bees that come out to investigate. Mother skunks are known to teach this behavior to their young.

Behavior[edit]

Skunks are crepuscular and solitary animals when not breeding, though in the colder parts of their range, they may gather in communal dens for warmth. During the day, they shelter in burrows which they can dig with their powerful front claws. Males and females occupy overlapping home ranges through the greater part of the year, typically 2 to 4 km2 (0.77 to 1.54 sq mi) for females and up to 20 km2 (7.7 sq mi) for males.

Skunks are not true hibernators in the winter, but do den up for extended periods of time. However, they remain generally inactive and feed rarely, going through a dormant stage. Over winter, multiple females (as many as 12) huddle together; males often den alone. Often, the same winter den is repeatedly used.

Although they have excellent senses of smell and hearing, they have poor vision, being unable to see objects more than about 3 m (10 ft) away, making them vulnerable to death by road traffic. They are short-lived; their lifespan in the wild can reach seven years, with most living only up to a year.[4][5] In captivity, they may live for up to 10 years.[4][5]

Reproduction[edit]

A striped skunk kit

Skunks mate in early spring and are polygynous, meaning that successful males mate with more than one female. Before giving birth (usually in May), the female excavates a den to house her litter of four to seven kits. They are placental, with a gestation period of about 66 days.[6]

When born, skunk kits are blind, deaf, and covered in a soft layer of fur. About three weeks after birth, their eyes open. The kits are weaned about two months after birth, but generally stay with their mother until they are ready to mate, at about one year of age.

The mother is protective of her kits, spraying at any sign of danger. The male plays no part in raising the young.[citation needed]

Anal scent glands[edit]

Skunks are notorious for their anal scent glands, which they can use as a defensive weapon. They are similar to, though much more developed than, the glands found in species of the family Mustelidae. Skunks have two glands, one on each side of the anus. These glands produce a mixture of sulfur-containing chemicals such as thiols, traditionally called mercaptans, which have a highly offensive smell. The odor of the fluid is strong enough to ward off bears and other potential attackers and can be difficult to remove from clothing. Muscles located next to the scent glands allow them to spray with a high degree of accuracy, as far as 3 m (10 ft). The smell aside, the spray can cause irritation and even temporary blindness, and is sufficiently powerful to be detected by a human nose up to a mile down wind. Their chemical defense is effective, as illustrated by this extract from Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle:

We saw also a couple of Zorrillos, or skunks—odious animals, which are far from uncommon. In general appearance, the Zorrillo resembles a polecat, but it is rather larger and much thicker in proportion. Conscious of its power, it roams by day about the open plain, and fears neither dog nor man. If a dog is urged to the attack, its courage is instantly checked by a few drops of the fetid oil, which brings on violent sickness and running at the nose. Whatever is once polluted by it, is for ever useless. Azara says the smell can be perceived at a league distant; more than once, when entering the harbour of Monte Video, the wind being off shore, we have perceived the odour on board the Beagle. Certain it is, that every animal most willingly makes room for the Zorrillo.[7]

Western spotted skunk, also called a zorrillo, which means "little fox" in Spanish

Skunks are reluctant to use this weapon, as they carry just enough of the chemical for five or six uses – about 15 cc – and require some ten days to produce another supply.[8] Their bold black and white coloration make their appearance memorable. It is to a skunk's advantage to warn possible predators off without expending scent: black and white aposematic warning coloration aside, threatened skunks will go through an elaborate routine of hisses, foot-stamping, and tail-high deimatic or threat postures before resorting to spraying. Skunks usually do not spray other skunks, except among males in the mating season. If they fight over den space in autumn, they do so with teeth and claws.[citation needed]

Most predators of the Americas, such as wolves, foxes and badgers, seldom attack skunks, presumably out of fear of being sprayed. The exceptions are dogs, reckless predators whose attacks fail once they are sprayed, and the great horned owl.[9] It is the skunk's only regular predator.[10] In one case, the remains of 57 striped skunks were found in a single owl nest.[11]

Skunks are common in suburban areas. Frequent encounters with dogs and other domestic animals, and the release of the odor when a skunk is run over, have led to many myths about the removal of skunk odor. Due to the chemical composition of the spray, most of these household remedies are ineffective,[12] except for remedies able to break down thiols.

Skunk spray is composed mainly of three low-molecular-weight thiol compounds, (E)-2-butene-1-thiol, 3-methyl-1-butanethiol, and 2-quinolinemethanethiol, as well as acetate thioesters of these.[13][14][15][16][17] These compounds are detectable by the human nose at concentrations of only 10 parts per billion.[18][19]

SkunkMuskChem.svg

Bites[edit]

It is rare for a healthy skunk to bite a human. While a domesticated skunk with its scent glands removed may defend itself by biting, there are few recorded incidents. The most prevalent cause of skunks biting humans is the rabies virus. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recorded 1,494 cases of rabies in skunks in the United States for the year 2006 — about 21.5% of reported cases in all species.[20][21] Skunks trail raccoons as vectors of rabies, although this varies regionally (raccoons dominate along the Atlantic coast and eastern Gulf of Mexico, skunks throughout the Midwest and down to the western Gulf, and in California).

Domestication[edit]

Main article: Skunks as pets
A domesticated skunk

Mephitis mephitis, the striped skunk species, is the most social skunk and the one most commonly domesticated. When a skunk is kept as a pet, its scent glands are often surgically removed. Skunks can legally be kept as pets in the UK, but the Animal Welfare Act 2006[22] has made it illegal to remove their scent glands. The keeping of skunks as pets is illegal in some US states.[23]

Classification[edit]

Skunks, together with stink badgers, belong to the skunk family, the "Mephitidae",[24][25] which is in the order Carnivora. There are twelve species of mephitids, in four genera: Conepatus (hog-nosed skunks, four species); Mephitis (the hooded and striped skunks, two species); Mydaus (stink badgers, two species); and Spilogale (spotted skunks, four species). The two stink badgers in the genus Mydaus inhabit Indonesia and the Philippines; the other members of the family inhabit the Americas, ranging from Canada to central South America. All other mephitids are extinct, known through fossils, including those from Eurasia.[citation needed]

Skunks were formerly classified as a subfamily of the Mustelidae (the weasel family). However, recent genetic evidence has caused skunks to be treated as a separate family.[25] Similarly, the stink badgers had been classified with badgers, but genetic evidence shows they share a more recent common ancestor with skunks, so they are now included in the skunk family.[26][27] In alphabetical order, the living skunk species are:[28]

A hooded skunk skeleton on display at the Museum of Osteology

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Polecat", Online Etymological Dictionary
  2. ^ A concise etymological dictionary of the English language, Walter William Skeat, Harper & Brothers, 1882, p. 440
  3. ^ "Skunk", Online Etymological Dictionary
  4. ^ a b ADW: Mephitis mephitis: INFORMATION. Animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu. Retrieved on 2012-04-05.
  5. ^ a b Virtual Nature Trail. Striped Skunk. The Pennsylvania State University (2002).
  6. ^ "Skunks Management Guidelines". UC Davis IPM. 
  7. ^ Darwin, Charles (1839). Voyage of the Beagle. London, England: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-043268-X. Retrieved June 27, 2006. 
  8. ^ http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex4663[full citation needed]
  9. ^ "Oregon Zoo Animals: Great Horned Owl". Oregonzoo.org. Retrieved 2012-02-09. 
  10. ^ "Great Horned Owl". The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Retrieved 21 March 2013. 
  11. ^ Hunter, Luke (2011). Carnivores of the World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-15228-8. [page needed]
  12. ^ Is it true that tomato sauce will get rid of the smell of a skunk?. Scienceline. Retrieved on 2012-04-05.
  13. ^ Andersen K. K., Bernstein D. T. (1978). "Some Chemical Constituents of the Scent of the Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis)". Journal of Chemical Ecology 1 (4): 493–499. doi:10.1007/BF00988589. 
  14. ^ Andersen K. K., Bernstein D. T. (1978). "1-Butanethiol and the Striped Skunk". Journal of Chemical Education 55 (3): 159–160. doi:10.1021/ed055p159. 
  15. ^ Andersen K. K., Bernstein D. T., Caret R. L., Romanczyk L. J., Jr. (1982). "Chemical Constituents of the Defensive Secretion of the Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis)". Tetrahedron 38 (13): 1965–1970. doi:10.1016/0040-4020(82)80046-X. 
  16. ^ Wood W. F., Sollers B. G., Dragoo G. A., Dragoo J. W. (2002). "Volatile Components in Defensive Spray of the Hooded Skunk, Mephitis macroura". Journal of Chemical Ecology 28 (9): 1865–70. doi:10.1023/A:1020573404341. PMID 12449512. 
  17. ^ William F. Wood. "Chemistry of Skunk Spray". Dept. of Chemistry, Humboldt State University. Retrieved July 27, 2010. 
  18. ^ William F. Wood (1999). "The History of Skunk Defensive Secretion Research". Chem. Educator 4 (2): 44–50. doi:10.1007/s00897990286a. 
  19. ^ Aldrich, T.B. (1896). "A chemical study of the secretion of the anal glands of mephitis mephitica (common skunk), with remarks on the physiological properties of this secretion". J. Exp. Med. 1 (2): 323–340. doi:10.1084/jem.1.2.323. PMC 2117909. PMID 19866801. 
  20. ^ Blanton J.D., Hanlon C.A., Rupprecht C.E. (2007). "Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2006". Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 231 (4): 540–56. doi:10.2460/javma.231.4.540. PMID 17696853. 
  21. ^ "Rabies Surveillance US 2006". U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 
  22. ^ "Animal Welfare Act 2006" (PDF). Retrieved December 5, 2009. 
  23. ^ US states where skunks can be kept
  24. ^ Don E. Wilson & DeeAnn M. Reeder (2005). Mammal Species of the World. A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0. [page needed]
  25. ^ a b Dragoo and Honeycutt; Honeycutt, Rodney L (1997). "Systematics of Mustelid-like Carnvores". Journal of Mammalogy (Journal of Mammalogy, Vol. 78, No. 2) 78 (2): 426–443. doi:10.2307/1382896. JSTOR 1382896. 
  26. ^ Koepfli KP, Deere KA, Slater GJ, et al. (2008). "Multigene phylogeny of the Mustelidae: Resolving relationships, tempo and biogeographic history of a mammalian adaptive radiation". BMC Biol. 6: 4–5. doi:10.1186/1741-7007-6-10. PMC 2276185. PMID 18275614. 
  27. ^ Mammal Species of the World – Browse: Mephitidae. Bucknell.edu. Retrieved on 2012-04-05.
  28. ^ Wilson, D. E.; Reeder, D. M., eds. (2005). Mammal Species of the World (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0. OCLC 62265494. 
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