Skunk (Mepitidae)

Most people recognize the distinct odor of the skunk, but few experience seeing a live one in the wild. Skunk watching is fun; just make sure you keep a safe distance away! When threatened they can spray a foul-smelling musk from their anal glands.

At one time biologists classified skunks in the weasel family, but more recent genetic investigations have led taxonomists to group all North American skunks and Asian stink badgers into their own separate family. There are five different species of North American skunk in three genera: spotted skunks (Spilogale), hognosed skunks (Conepatus), and striped and hooded skunks (Methitis). The five species are (1) Striped Skunk [shown in photos on this page], (2) Eastern Spotted Skunk (Spilogale putorius), (3) Western Spotted Skunk (Spilogale gracilis), (4) Hognose Skunk (Conepatus leucontus, also called Rooter Skunk), and (5) Hooded Skunk (Mephitis macroura). Skunks have been called by a variety of common names including civet cat and polecat. Spotted skunks have been called hydrophobia cats, weasel skunks, four-stripe skunks, tree skunks, and black martins.

All skunks are boldly colored; an advertisement to potential enemies that they are not to be bothered. They use their odorous musk to mark their territory and to repel danger.

Size: Striped Skunks are the largest of the five species. They weigh up to fourteen pounds, about the size of a house cat. Spotted skunks are smaller, reaching a maximum weight of two pounds. The other two types, Hognose and Hooded Skunks, reach up to five pounds in weight.

Characteristics: The striking black and white coloration of all five species is the bold indicator of 'skunk'! Unlike animal coloration that camouflages its owner, skunks advertise their presence to ward off enemies and intruders.

A cat-size torso, two full-body stripes that begin at the base of the neck (a white-V look), and the narrow-stripe down the snout distinguish the Striped Skunk. Hooded Skunks do not have the white-V marking, but do have a ruff of long white hair that extends from the back of their neck, and also sport a fifteen-inch tail. This is about twice the tail length of most Striped Skunks. Hognose Skunks have a long piglike snout -- hence their descriptive name -- plus their entire back and tail are white, while the lower sides and belly are black. Kitten-sized Spotted Skunks have numerous short body-stripes with an additional spot on their forehead, one under each ear, and a white-tipped tail.

Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis)

Skunks are primarily nocturnal and usually solitary, except when mothers appear with their offspring in tow. Skunks can be active year-round; however, in the northern locales they will remain dormant within their dens through the coldest spells of winter.

Food: Skunks are true omnivorous mammals; active night feeders that will consume insects, rodents, frogs, crayfish, bird eggs and nestlings, carrion, plus fruit, berries, and other plant material. Seasonal changes also impact availability and feeding patterns. Generally, skunks are opportunistic foragers that will eat nearly anything that they can find or catch.

Species food patterns do vary. Hognose Skunks root for insects and grubs, thus earning their nickname as 'rooter' skunk. Spotted skunks consume more rodents, small rabbits, and other invertebrates than the larger species. The larger-sized Striped Skunk's diet is made up mainly of insects including bees, and various larvae. They are not fast enough to pursue prey; therefore, they usually stalk or hunt by lying in wait. Skunks do not cache food, but they will raid the caches of other mammals especially weasels.

Habitat: Skunks are adaptable. They live in a variety of open, scrub, wooded, agricultural, and developed areas. Hooded and Hognose Skunks are usually found in brushy or rocky land areas. The Western Spotted Skunk is more tolerant of arid, dry conditions than the other varieties. In moister eastern regions, skunks have a feeding territory of under twenty acres while those residing in arid scrublands and desert lands may require an area upwards to 200 acres. They will den near streams or water sources in woodlands, brush, open prairie, and among boulders and rock crevices. Skunks can dig their own burrows, but seem to prefer moving into ones constructed by other animals. In urban areas, they will also nest in houses, walls, basements, culverts, and beneath buildings, wood and rock piles.

Reproduction: More is known about the reproduction of striped skunks than the others, but all are capable of delayed implantation - - meaning that after mating the fertilized egg can be held dormant for many weeks before they are implanted in the uterine wall and development continued. For this reason, mating of the Western Spotted Skunk often occurs in September or October with implantation delayed until March. Mating of other specie usually occurs in late winter or early spring, February-March-April. Gestation time also varies, but averages around sixty to seventy-five days. Baby skunks are born in May or June with litter sizes ranging from three to as many as ten young (Usually four to seven) naked, blind kits. By three weeks, their eyes are open. The young skunks remain in the burrow or nest for about six weeks. After that the kits begin to follow their mother on nighttime food hunts. They remain with her through the summer, learning to find food themselves. Females mate during their first year.

Locomotion: Both the Western and Eastern Spotted Skunks are faster and more agile than other skunks. Spotted Skunks have a greater tendency to bound and can also climb trees with surprising ease. Generally skunks and particularly the Striped Skunk seldom hurry, walking in a slow and meandering fashion. Any animal with as potent a defense system as the skunk seldom has to hurry!

Den Habits: Male skunks tend to be solitary. Several females may den together during winter. A natal den is used for a longer period of time and is lined by grass and leaves for comfort.

The Western Spotted Skunk is more nomadic than other specie; it rarely makes a permanent den. Instead a Spotted Skunk is more likely to hole up temporarily in a safe spot such as a hollow log, tree cavity, rock crevice, woodpile, or an abandoned burrow.

Range: Striped Skunks are found throughout most of the 'lower 48' states, the southern tier of Canadian provinces, and into the northern states of Mexico. They are not found in the deserts of Southern California. Western Spotted Skunks, although seldom seen, range from southwestern British Columbia, Idaho, and southwestern Wyoming south to west Texas and into Mexico. Eastern Spotted Skunks are found from east Wyoming to Wisconsin south to Texas and Louisiana. East of the Mississippi River, they range from the state of Mississippi northeast to southern Pennsylvania and South Carolina, and eastward to Florida. Hognose Skunks are limited to small parts of Colorado and Oklahoma plus larger sections of the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas in the US. Hooded Skunks are found only in southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and extreme west Texas.

Self-defense: Skunks have two scent glands near the base of their tails. Each one is surrounded by muscle tissue that can contract to spray fine yellow droplets 15 feet or more. The most active ingredient in the foul smelling discharge is n-butyl mercaption. Besides the penetrating odor, it can cause temporary blindness and nausea. Even skunks themselves cannot stand the odor.

Striped Skunks, when distressed or provoked, will twist their body into a U-shape prior to spraying, so that both its head and tail face the invasion. Hooded Skunks also turn their tail to the enemy and make short backward scoots as they spray. But the most amusing attack is made by Spotted Skunks, who do a handstand facing the intrusion and fire directly over their head. All species are highly accurate.

Predators: Even with their potent defense, there are predators who can attack swiftly enough to carry off a young skunk before a mother can spray. Great Horned Owls strike from above and without warning. Other predators include coyotes and domestic dogs. However the main threat to skunks have been humans who either killed them casually or out of fear. Striped Skunks are the chief carrier of rabies in the US, especially in the Midwest. Large numbers of skunks are run over by automobiles. At one time Striped skunks were hunted and trapped for their fine and silky fur.

If you still want to find more online information about skunks, try visiting some to following websites:

  1. Hooded Skunk from Mammals of Texas
  2. Skunk from Missouri Dept. of Conservation
  3. Skunk from Canadian Federation of Humane Societies
  4. Skunk Information Links from Wildlife Search
  5. Skunks from Enchanted Learning

Skunk Trivia: Chicago is derived from a Fox Indian term for 'place of the skunk' indicating that these animals were once abundant there.

Try a webquest activity.

Note: All photographs were taken with a digital camera in Courthouse Wash, Arches National Park, Utah.
Developed by Annette Lamb and Larry Johnson, 05/02.