The Family Mephitidae – Skunks

The Family Mephitidae – Skunks

Most urban dwelling folk only know skunks from watching cartoons.  Disney’s epic woodland adventure, Bambi, featured a shy little creature “Flower.”  Television’s Looney Tunes introduced a sophisticated, debonair and overly amorous Parisian skunk named Pepé Le Pew.  Others, mainly during road trips in the country, know them only from fleeting whiffs of the telltale pungent and quite noxious aromatic that never fails to elicit the cry: “skunk!”

Truth be told, skunks are far more intriguing than the latter unfortunate association suggests.

Skunks give the impression that they are a genetic amalgam with a cat-like body, ferret’s face and the winsome eyes of a puppy.  If left unbothered to pursue their solitary life, skunks are quite gentle and even cute.  Intentionally domesticated skunks make affectionate pets.  Wild skunks?  Not so much.  Perhaps as a result of the care and feeding they receive from their patrons, domestic skunks live twice as long as their wild counterparts, ten years for the former, half that but more often only two or three years for the latter.

Skunks have poor eyesight but highly acute senses of hearing and smell.

Skunks rarely roam more than two miles from home, home being anyplace with food and a water source.  Like opossums, they prefer borrowed burrows abandoned by more industrious animals.  Dark, out-of-the way hides in human dwellings work too.  If they have to, they’ll dig their own shelter.  Unlike opossums, skunks are natural diggers with strong forearms and long nails perfect for seeking out grubs under lawns and gardens.  Skunks, for the most part, are solitary animals until the weather gets cold.  Then they will gather in communal shelters to stay warm.

Like deer, skunks are crepuscular.  Calling them nocturnal is a bit of a misnomer.  They emerge in pursuit of a belly-full of nature’s bounty (or human leftovers) as day transforms to evening twilight.  They’re omnivores that enjoy both plants and animal flesh, fresh or carrion.  High on their evening meal menu are beetles, the aforementioned grubs; worms; grasshoppers; rodents such as voles, mice, even rats; frogs; bird eggs including those of chickens; fruits; berries; mushrooms and fresh corn.  Honeybees are a skunk delicacy.

The name skunk is an anglicized blend of the Algonquin and Iroquois words meaning “to urinate.”  The Native American name for Chicago – “skunk land” – is a bit of unintentional but definitely humorous politically incorrect trivia.

Unlike the lookalike and downright arrogant, intentionally mean-spirited African Honey Badger, skunks are quite docile.  Getting into grudge matches with dogs, humans, or other creatures is not foremost on their minds.  Flower, the gentle, shy Disney cartoon character, has a demeanor similar to live skunks.  They are quite the conscientious objectors.  They tend to be immune to snake venom.  Their natural predators include bobcats, foxes, coyotes, and Great Horned Owls.

When confronted by a potential threat they squeal, hiss, screech, make “zook zook” sounding noises, grunt, smack their lips, and stomp loudly in hopes that the interloper goes away. Most animals, including humans, get the message. Those familiar with skunks treat them with discretion and respect.

The uneducated or uncaring, often overly curious young canines who persist in a one-sided game of who’s the boss, find themselves facing the little black and white creature’s hind end.  It’s a last resort defense mechanism that brings into play twin anal glands at the ready to go aerosol.  The result is a non-lethal lesson quickly learned.  The foul-smelling spray can coat the menace out to a distance of ten feet.  Its lingering odor, on the other hand, can be detected up to a mile and a half away.

Molecular analysis recently revised skunks’ place in scientific taxonomy.  Originally considered part of the Mustelid Family together with weasels, otters, and badgers, biologists now know skunks belong to the completely separate Family Mephitidae.  All skunks can be divided into four Genera: Mephitis (hooded and striped skunks), Conepatus (hog-nosed skunks), Silogale (spotted skunks), and the most recent addition inhabiting sections of the Pacific Rim, Mydaus (stink badgers).

For years, wildlife biologists believed only the 11 species dwelling in the Americas were skunks. During the late 1990s, they added the bob-tailed “stink badgers” found in the Philippines and Indonesia to raise that number to 12 confirming that stink badgers are skunks not badgers at all.

For the most part, skunks are New World animals.  All but one specie are limited in their demographics to the Americas.  The most common and numerous of the four black and white furry species found in North America – striped, spotted, hooded, and hog-nosed skunks – is the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis).

Early M. mephitis relatives inhabited North America as long ago as 1.8 million years according to fossils found in Nebraska.  Its range today extends from southern Canada to northern Mexico and through out the United States as depicted by the 13 given names that precede their common skunk surname – Canada, Illinois, Florida, Arizona, Great Basin, Southern California, Northern Plains, Louisiana, Eastern, Cascade, California, Puget Sound, and Long Tailed Texan skunks.

Hooded skunks (Mephitis macroura) are most abundant throughout Mexico but make their homes through Central America to Costa Rica.

Western spotted skunks (Spilogale gracilis) range west of the Continental Divide from Canada to Central America.  The Eastern variety (Spilogale putorius) is found from the central throughout the southeastern United States.  The Southern spotted skunk (Spilogale angustifrons) lives from Costa Rica to southern Mexico.  Pygmy spotted skunks (Spilogale pygmaea) are found along Mexico’s Pacific coast.

The American Hog-nose skunk (Conepatus leuconotus) makes its home in southwestern United States, throughout Mexico into Central America.  The Humboldt/Patagonian hog-nose skunks (Conepatus humboldtii) inhabit the Patagonian region of Chile and Argentina.  Molina hog-nosed skunks (Conepatus chinga) live from mid to southern South America while Striped hog-nosed skunks (Conepatus semistriatus) can be found at the extreme Atlantic coast of Brazil as well as southern Mexico and northern Peru.

Palawan stink badgers (Mydaus marchei) live on the Philippine Island of Palawan while its cousin the Sunda stink badger (Mydaus javanensis) lives on the western islands off the Malay Archipelago: Borneo, Sumatra, and Java.

Striped skunk markings are distinguished by two white stripes originating at the animal’s head that divide at the shoulders and outline each flank before rejoining at the furry creature’s backside.

Spotted skunks sport a single “spot” on their forehead between their eyes.  The rest of their bodies are a delightful swirl of white and black fur.  They are the smallest skunk and the best rat and mouse hunter of the family.  Spotted skunks are also the only skunk type that climbs trees.

Hooded skunks’ markings come in three variations: a broad expanse of white from head to tail, a mix of black and white, and all black.  They have softer fur than Striped skunks and also differ because they have a distinct thin white line running down their face between their eyes.

Hog-nosed skunks are the largest of the family.  The American hog-nosed skunk formerly the Western hog-nosed skunk is almost 3 feet long.  It’s muscular shoulders and front legs together with its long claws gave it the nickname “badger skunk.” Their fleshy furless nose spawned the moniker “rooter skunk.”  Hog-nose skunks sport a broad “white stripe” covering their backs and tails and all black bodies beneath.  Variations include twin white back stripes over brownish body fur on the Humbolt’s or Patagonian skunk.  The Molina hog-nose and the Striped hog-nose skunk are marked similar to North American striped skunks.

Palawan stink badgers are mostly short-haired black to brown fur.  Sunda stink badgers have a tuft of white on their foreheads and a white stripe down their backs.

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