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Striped Skunk.jpg
Striped skunks
Scientific classification Red Pencil Icon.png
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Superfamily: Musteloidea
Family: Mephitidae
Groups included


Skunks are North and South American mammals in the family Mephitidae. While related to polecats and other members of the weasel family, skunks have as their closest Old World relatives the stink badgers. [1] The animals are known for their ability to spray a liquid with a strong, unpleasant smell. [2] [3] [4] Different species of skunk vary in appearance from black-and-white to brown, cream or ginger colored, but all have warning coloration.

Cultural aspects


The word "skunk" is an Americanism from the 1630s, the Massachusetts reflex (linguistics) of Proto-Algonquian squunck, from a southern New England Algonquian language (probably Abenaki) seganku, from Proto-Algonquian */šeka:kwa/, from */šek-/ "to urinate" + */-a:kw/ "fox."


"Skunk" has historic use as an insult, attested from 1841. [5]

History of Caucasian awareness

In 1634, a skunk was described in The Jesuit Relations :

The other is a low animal, about the size of a little dog or cat. I mention it here, not on account of its excellence, but to make of it a symbol of sin. I have seen three or four of them. It has black fur, quite beautiful and shining; and has upon its back two perfectly white stripes, which join near the neck and tail, making an oval which adds greatly to their grace. The tail is bushy and well furnished with hair, like the tail of a Fox; it carries it curled back like that of a Squirrel. It is more white than black; and, at the first glance, you would say, especially when it walks, that it ought to be called Jupiter's little dog. But it is so stinking, and casts so foul an odor, that it is unworthy of being called the dog of Pluto. No sewer ever smelled so bad. I would not have believed it if I had not smelled it myself. Your heart almost fails you when you approach the animal; two have been killed in our court, and several days afterward there was such a dreadful odor throughout our house that we could not endure it. I believe the sin smelled by Saint Catherine de Sienne must have had the same vile odor. [6]

In Southern United States dialect, the term polecat is sometimes used as a colloquial nickname for a skunk. [7]


Physical description

Skunk species vary in size from about 15.6 to 37 in (40 to 94 cm) long 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. They have five toes on each foot.

back left foot of an albino skunk The back left foot of an albino skunk.jpg
back left foot of an albino skunk

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.


Skunks are omnivorous, eating both plant and animal material and changing their diets as the seasons change. They eat insects, larvae, earthworms, grubs, 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. In addition, in California, skunks dig up yellow-jacket (small hornet) nests in summer, after the compacted soil under oak trees dries out and cracks open, which allows the yellow-jackets to build their nests underground.[ citation needed ]


A skunk in Ontario, Canada Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis) 01 (cropped).jpg
A skunk in Ontario, Canada

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. [8] [9] In captivity, they may live for up to 10 years. [8] [9]


Skunks mate in early spring and are polygynous (that is, successful males are uninhibited from mating with additional females.

Before giving birth (usually in May), the female excavates a den to house her litter of four to seven kits.

Skunks are placental, with a gestation period of about 66 days. [10]

When born, skunk kits are blind, deaf, but already covered by a soft layer of fur. About three weeks after birth, they first open their eyes; the kits are weaned about two months after birth. They generally stay with their mother until they are ready to mate, roughly at 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. [11]


Striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) in defensive posture with erect and puffed tail, indicating that it may be about to spray. Skunk about to spray.jpg
Striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) in defensive posture with erect and puffed tail, indicating that it may be about to spray.

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 the skunk's spray, which is a mixture of sulfur-containing chemicals such as thiols (traditionally called mercaptans), which have an offensive odor. A skunk's spray is powerful enough to ward off bears and other potential attackers. [12] 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 spray can also cause irritation and even temporary blindness, and is sufficiently powerful to be detected by a human nose up to 5.6 km (3.5 miles) downwind.[ citation needed ] 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. [13]

Skunks carry just enough of the chemical for five or six sprays – about 15 cm3 – and require some ten days to produce another supply. [14] Their bold black and white coloration makes 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 reckless predators whose attacks fail once they are sprayed, dogs, and the great horned owl, [15] which is the skunk's only regular predator. [16] In one case, the remains of 57 striped skunks were found in a single great horned owl nest. [17]

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. [18] The Humane Society of the United States recommends treating dogs using a mixture of dilute hydrogen peroxide (3%), baking soda, and dishwashing liquid. [19]

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. [20] [21] [22] [23] [24] These compounds are detectable by the human nose at concentrations of only 11.3 parts per billion. [25] [26]


Relations with humans


It is rare for a healthy skunk to bite a human; while a tame skunk whose scent glands have been removed (usually on behalf of those who will keep it as a pet) may defend itself by biting; there are however few recorded incidents, the most prevalent circumstance of skunk-bites of humans being infection with rabies virus (reflecting the virus’s “evolutionary strategy” of, in effect, promoting its spread via the so-called mad-dog syndrome). 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. [27] [28] Skunks in fact are less prominent than raccoons as vectors of rabies. (However this varies regionally in the United States, with raccoons dominating along the Atlantic coast and the eastern Gulf of Mexico,while skunks instead predominate, throughout the Midwest including the western Gulf, and in California.

As pets

A tame striped skunk Striped skunk Freddy.jpg
A tame striped skunk

Mephitis mephitis, the striped skunk, is the most social skunk and the one most commonly kept as a pet. In the US, skunks can legally be kept as pets in 17 states. [29] When a skunk is kept as a pet, its scent glands are often surgically removed. [29] In the UK, skunks can be kept as pets, [30] but the Animal Welfare Act 2006 made it illegal to remove their scent glands. [31]


In alphabetical order, the living species of skunks are: [32]

A hooded skunk skeleton on display at the Museum of Osteology Hooded skunk skeleton.JPG
A hooded skunk skeleton on display at the Museum of Osteology

See also

Related Research Articles

Mephitidae Family of mammals

Mephitidae is a family of mammals comprising the skunks and stink badgers. They are noted for the great development of their anal scent glands, which they use to deter predators.


A thiol or thiol derivative is any organosulfur compound of the form R−SH, where R represents an alkyl or other organic substituent. The –SH functional group itself is referred to as either a thiol group or a sulfhydryl group, or a sulfanyl group. Thiols are the sulfur analogue of alcohols, and the word is a portmanteau of "thio-" + "alcohol", with the first word deriving from Greek θεῖον (theion) meaning "sulfur".

Spotted skunk

The genus Spilogale includes all skunks commonly known as spotted skunks and is composed of four extant species: S. gracilis, S. putorius, S. pygmaea, and S. angustifrons.

Skunks as pets

Although capable of living indoors with humans similarly to cats or dogs, pet skunks are relatively rare, partly due to restrictive laws and the complexity of their care. Pet skunks are mainly kept in the United States, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, and Italy.

Eastern spotted skunk

The eastern spotted skunk is a small, relatively slender skunk found in North America, throughout the eastern United States and in small areas of Canada and Mexico.

Hog-nosed skunk

The hog-nosed skunks belong to the genus Conepatus and are members of the family Mephitidae (skunks). They are native to the Americas. They have white backs and tails and black underparts.

Molinas hog-nosed skunk

Molina's hog-nosed skunk is similar to the common skunk with scent glands used to spray an odorous liquid to offend potential predators. They have a resistance to pit viper venom, distinct thin white markings and a pink, hog-like, fleshy nose.

Striped skunk Species of mammal

The striped skunk is a skunk of the genus Mephitis that occurs across most of North America, including southern Canada, the United States, and northern Mexico. It is currently listed as least concern by the IUCN on account of its wide range and ability to adapt to human-modified environments.

Hooded skunk

The hooded skunk is a species of mammal in the family Mephitidae. Mephītis in Latin means "foul odor", μακρός (makrós) in Greek translates to "long" and οὐρά (ourá) translates to "tail".

Dogs, as with all mammals, have natural odors. Natural dog odor can be unpleasant to dog owners especially when dogs are kept inside the home, as some people are not used to being exposed to the natural odor of a non-human species living in proximity to them. Dogs may also develop unnatural odors as a result of skin disease or other disorders or may become contaminated with odors from other sources in their environment.

Palawan stink badger

The Palawan stink badger, or pantot, is a carnivoran of the western Philippines named for its resemblance to badgers, its powerful smell, and the largest island to which it is native, Palawan. Like all stink badgers, the Palawan stink badger was once thought to share a more recent common ancestor with badgers than with skunks. Recent genetic evidence, however, has led to their re-classification as one of the Mephitidae, the skunk family of mammals. It is the size of a large skunk or small badger, and uses its badger-like body to dig by night for invertebrates in open areas near patches of brush. While it lacks the whitish dorsal patches typical of its closest relatives, predators and hunters generally avoid the powerful noxious chemicals it can spray from the specialized anal glands characteristic of mephitids.

Western spotted skunk

The western spotted skunk is a spotted skunk of western North America.


1-Butanethiol, also known as butyl mercaptan, is a volatile, clear to yellowish liquid with a fetid odor, commonly described as "skunk" odor. In fact, 1-butanethiol is structurally similar to several major constituents of a skunk's defensive spray but is not actually present in the spray. The scent of 1-butanethiol is so strong that the human nose can easily detect it in the air at concentrations as low as 10 parts per billion. The threshold level for 1-butanethiol is reported as 1.4 ppb

Pygmy spotted skunk

The pygmy spotted skunk is a species of mammal in the family Mephitidae. It is endemic to Mexico.

American hog-nosed skunk

The American hog-nosed skunk is a species of hog-nosed skunk from Central and North America, and is one of the largest skunks in the world, growing to lengths of up to 2.7 feet (82 cm). Recent work has concluded the western hog-nosed skunk is the same species, and Conepatus leuconotus is the correct name of the merged populations.

Southern spotted skunk

The southern spotted skunk is a species of mammal in the skunk family, (Mephitidae). It ranges from Costa Rica to southern Mexico. At one time this skunk was considered to be a subspecies of the eastern spotted skunk.

Deimatic behaviour bluffing threat display of an animal used to startle a predator

Deimatic behaviour or startle display means any pattern of bluffing behaviour in an animal that lacks strong defences, such as suddenly displaying conspicuous eyespots, to scare off or momentarily distract a predator, thus giving the prey animal an opportunity to escape. The term deimatic or dymantic originates from the Greek δειματόω (deimatόo), meaning "to frighten".


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