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Skunks are moderately small mammals, usually with black-and-white fur, belonging to the family Mephitidae and to the order Carnivora. There are 11 species of skunks, which are divided into four genera: Mephitis (hooded and striped skunks, two species), Spilogale (spotted skunks, two species), Mydaus (stink badgers, two species), and Conepatus (hog-nosed skunks, five species). The two skunk species in the Mydaus genus inhabit Indonesia and the Philippines; all other skunks inhabit the Americas from Canada to central South America.
Skunks are sometimes called polecats because of their visual similarity to the European polecat (Mustela putorius), a member of the Mustelidae family. Skunks were formerly considered a subfamily of the Mustelidae (where some taxonomists still place them), but recent genetic evidence indicates that they are not as closely related to the weasels and allies as formerly thought.
Skunk species vary in size from about 15.6 in. (40 cm) to 27 in. (70 cm) and in weight from about 1.1 lb. (0.5 kg) (the spotted skunks) to 10 lb. (4.5 kg) (the hog-nosed skunks) They have a moderately elongated body with reasonably 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 gray, and a few are cream-colored. All skunks are striped, however, 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.
Since most people find thier smell offensive, people living in areas known to be inhabited by skunks are advised to take certain precautions to prevent skunks from taking up residence where they are not wanted. As skunks commonly make their dens in wood or junk piles, it is recommended that these be kept to a minimum. Skunks are scavengers and frequently go after garbage. Store garbage in tightly sealed cans (also good to deter dogs, bears or other wildlife). Another common method of reducing skunks near residential areas is to use a general purpose pesticide on the grounds to reduce the occurrence of the insects upon which skunks feed. A fence extending one or two feet into the ground is sufficient to prevent skunks from making a den underneath a house or other structure.
If a skunk should take up residence under the building, bags filled with mothballs or washcloths drenched with ammonia can be used to encourage skunks to leave. Securing a rope to the bag or cloth will make removal easy later on. Flour or other non-toxic white powder can be sprinkled around the den entrance to track foot prints. Check for fresh foot prints from the skunk leading out, but not going back in. It is better to check in the morning as the skunks will be more likely to active at night.
After all the skunks have left, block up any entrances that the skunk may have used along with the entrance to the skunk's den. If it is suspected that there are more skunks living in the den, construct a door at the den's entrance that is hinged at the top, and extends approximately 6 inches beyond the entrance. It should be placed at a right angle to the direction of travel and should not be air tight. This can be an effective technique as it allows the skunks to exit their den, but makes it difficult for them to get back in.
Anal scent glands
The best-known, most distinctive, and often most notorious feature of the skunks is the great development of their anal scent glands, which they can use as a defensive weapon. It is similar to, though much more developed than, the glands found in species of the Mustelidae family. Skunks have two glands, on either side of the anus, that produce a mixture of sulfur-containing chemicals (methyl and butyl thiols) that has 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 high accuracy as far as 2 to 3 metres (7 to 10 ft). The smell aside, the spray can cause irritation and even temporary blindness, and is sufficiently powerful to be detected by even an insensitive human nose anywhere up to a mile downwind. Their chemical defense, though unusual, is effective, as illustrated by this extract from Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle:
We saw also a couple of Zorillos, or skunks,--odious animals, which are far from uncommon. In general appearance the Zorillo 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 of the elbow. 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 Zorillo.
Skunks are reluctant to use their smelly weapon, as they carry just enough of the chemical for 5 to 6 uses—about 15 cc—and require some ten days to produce another supply. Their bold black and white colouring however serves to makes the skunk's appearance memorable. Where practical, it is to a skunk's advantage to simply warn a threatening creature off without expending scent: the black and white warning colour aside, threatened skunks will go through an elaborate routine of hisses and foot stamping and tail-high threat postures before resorting to the spray. Interestingly, skunks will not spray other skunks (with the exception of males in the mating season); though they fight over den space in autumn, they do so with tooth and claw.
The singular musk-spraying ability of the skunk has not escaped the attention of biologists: the names of the family and the most common genus (Mephitidae, Mephitis) mean "stench", and Spilogale putorius means "stinking spotted weasel". The word skunk is a corruption of an Abenaki name for them, segongw or segonku, which means "one who squirts" in the Algonquian dialect.
Most predatory animals of the Americas, such as wolves, foxes and badgers, seldom attack skunks—presumably out of fear of being sprayed. The exception is the great horned owl, the animal's only serious predator (which, being a bird, has a poor-to-nonexistent sense of smell).
Skunk spray is composed mainly of low molecular weight thiol compounds , namely (E)-2-butene-1-thiol, 3-methyl-1-butanethiol and (E)-2-butenyl thioacetat, these compounds are detectable at concentrations of ~2 parts per million.
Removing the scent from objects or creatures can be difficult. Some home remedies suggest using tomato juice, beer or vinegar. A more complex remedy includes application of a mixture containing hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and liquid soap. The thiols, which are responsible for the odor, are not water soluble, even with soap, but the baking soda catalyzes the oxidative ability of the peroxide, which oxidizes the thiols into highly water-soluble thiolates. In an episode of the television programme MythBusters, the hydrogen peroxide mix was found to be the most effective smell removal agent.
Skunks are nocturnal, and are 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 that they dig with their powerful front claws, or in other man-made or natural hollows as the opportunity arises. Both sexes occupy overlapping home ranges through the greater part of the year; typically 2 to 4 km² for females, up to 20 km² for males.
Unlike the fictional "Flower" in the movie Bambi, real skunks do not hibernate in the winter. However they do remain generally inactive and feed rarely. They often overwinter in a huddle of one male and multiple (as many as twelve) females. The same winter den is often repeatedly used whether under a house or in a tree.
Although they have excellent senses of smell and hearing—vital attributes in a nocturnal carnivore—they have poor vision. They cannot see objects more than about 3 metres away with any clarity, which makes them very vulnerable to road traffic. Roughly half of all skunk deaths are caused by humans, as roadkill, or as a result of shooting and poisoning. They are short-lived animals: fewer than 10% survive for longer than three years.
In 2000, 2,223 cases of rabies were reported in the United States by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In case of a skunk bite, follow these directions. Whether the skunk is dead or alive, retain it, if possible without more injury, to stop from any other diseases that could be there and spread. If dead, place on top of ice or keep it in the refrigerator. Wash the wound thoroughly with antibacterial soap and water. Place pressure to stop any bleeding (this will take longer to clot depending on the damage of the wound). Next, call a local animal control station to take the skunk away. Ask to have it tested for rabies. See your doctor as soon as possible. It should not take more than 72 hours to get to a doctor's help. Once the doctor has looked over the wound, ask if a tetanus shot is necessary or a good thing if you have not had a shot in the last ten years. When the test results are finished on the skunk, you will be told if you should get the rabies vaccine or not.
Domesticated skunks can legally be kept as pets in certain U.S. states. Mephitis mephitis, the striped skunk species, is the most social skunk and the one most commonly domesticated. When the skunk is kept as a pet, the scent gland is removed. Typical life spans for domesticated skunks are considerably longer than for wild skunks, often reaching 10 years, though it is not unusual for a well cared for skunk to live well past 20 years. Some skunks were reported by European settlers in America as being kept as pets by certain Native Americans. The Pilgrims are said to have kept skunks as pets.
Skunks are omnivorous, eating both plant and animal material but mostly meat. They eat invertebrates (insects and their larvae, found by digging, and earthworms) as well as small vertebrates (rodents, lizards, salamanders, frogs, snakes, birds and eggs). In the absence of insects or other prey, skunks eat wild fruits and large seeds. In settled areas, skunks also seek human garbage.
Breeding usually takes place in early spring. Female skunks are induced ovulators, the male skunk mounts the female from behind and proceeds to bite the female on the back of the neck and back, which induces the female's ovulation. Females excavate a den ready for between one and four young to be born in May. The male plays no part in raising the young and may even kill them. A common scene in late spring and summer is a mother skunk followed by a line of her kits. By late July or early August the young disperse. When the young skunks meet again, they raise their tails vertically. After a little posturing they start to rub against each other, often rolling around in what appears to be an embrace. Older skunks seem less friendly to the young kits.
- Order Carnivora
- Family Canidae: dogs, 35 species
- Family Ursidae: bears, 8 species
- Family Procyonidae: raccoons, 19 species
- Family Mustelidae: weasels and allies, 55 species
- Family Ailuridae: red pandas, 1 species
- Family Mephitidae
- Striped Skunk, Mephitis mephitis
- Hooded Skunk, Mephitis macroura
Western Spotted Skunk, Spilogale gracilis
- Channel Islands Spotted Skunk, Spilogale gracilis amphiala
- Eastern Spotted Skunk, Spilogale putorius
- Pygmy Spotted Skunk, Spilogale pygmaea
- Western Hog-nosed Skunk, Conepatus mesoleucus
- Eastern Hog-nosed Skunk, Conepatus leuconotus
- Striped Hog-nosed Skunk, Conepatus semistriatus
- Andes Skunk, Conepatus chinga
- Patagonian Skunk, Conepatus humboldtii
- Indonesian or Javan Stink Badger (Teledu), Mydaus javanensis
- Palawan Stink Badger, Mydaus marchei
- Family Felidae: cats, 37 species
- Family Viverridae: civets and genets, 35 species
- Family Herpestidae: Mongooses, 35 species
- Family Hyaenidae: hyenas, 4 species
- Pet skunk
- ^ Dragoo, J., R. Honeycutt. 1997. Systematics of mustelid-like carnivores. Journal of Mammalogy, 78/2: 426-443.
- ^ Darwin, Charles (1839). Voyage of the Beagle. ISBN 0-14-043268-X. Retrieved on 2006-06-27.
- ^ "Skunk spray is composed mainly of low molecular weight thiol compounds." Note: Sure Fire Method for De-Scenting Pets Who've had a Close Encounter with a Skunk
- ^ Wood W. F., Sollers B. G., Dragoo G. A., Dragoo J. W. (2002). "Volatile Components in Defensive Spray of the Hooked Skunk, Mephitis macroura". Journal of Chemical Ecology 28. DOI:10.1023/A:1020573404341.
- ^ "Hydrogen peroxide and baking soda, when combined, become a "chemical engine" for churning out oxygen. That's why it has to be used immediately after mixing. The soap breaks up the oils in the skunk spray, allowing the other ingredients to do their work" Deskunking Dogs, Cats, and Other Pets For use on clothing, furniture, and anything of fabric, use the solution Nature's Cure usually found at large animal stores.
- ^ "In the tradition of the stinky pigs, Jamie and Adam volunteered to get skunked in order to test various stink remedies." Unofficial Mythbusters
- Dragoo Institute for the Betterment of Skunks and Skunk Reputations
- Coping With Skunks
- Krebaum Skunk Odor Eliminator