Almost everyone thinks of the same thing when it comes to skunks – the smell, right? As it turns out, skunks rarely “spray” predators unless startled, and will usually give warning signals before they do. But the striped skunk, an Ohio native, is actually a complex animal with a lot more interesting features than just its famous defense mechanism.
Mephitis mephitis, the striped skunk, belongs to the skunk family, Mephitidae. Within this family there are four genera; the striped skunk falls into the genus Mephitis along with its closest relative, the hooded skunk. The word mephitis actually comes from the Latin word mephit, meaning “bad odor.”
Striped skunks were named for the two broad white stripes that run down their back, starting as a single stripe at the nape and splitting into two on their torsos. Their tails end in a white tip. Males are about ten percent larger than females, a trait known as “sexual dimorphism” (when males and females differ in appearance). They live in northern Mexico, most of the continental U.S., and parts of Canada (from Nova Scotia to British Columbia). They most commonly live in woodlands, forests, wooded ravines, and grassy plains. However, with human settlements popping up in more places than ever, skunks have become increasingly common in suburban and cultivated areas.
These skunks are omnivores (like humans!), meaning that they eat both plants and other animals. Over 80 percent of their diet is meat, as they feed on many types of bugs, frogs, small rodents, and even bird eggs. However, they also eat many types of berries, grains, corn, and nuts. Skunks are also one of honeybee’s biggest predators. They scratch at the front of the hive and then eat the guard bees that emerge to investigate, relying on their thick fur as protection against stings. Skunks will also eat human garbage if they find themselves in a human-inhabited area.
Striped skunks rarely get eaten themselves, as most predators prefer to stay away from their distinctive odor. One of their main threats is the great horned owl; other predators include mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, and badgers.
Striped skunks exhibit a number of fascinating behaviors. They are crepuscular, meaning that they are active mainly at dawn and dusk (though they are also occasionally observed being nocturnal, meaning being active at night). During the winter, they do not hibernate, but rather go into a semi-active state.
During the breeding season, which is mid-February to mid-April, males build fat reserves on their bodies while females dig and defend maternity dens, in which they raise their offspring. Skunks exhibit a polygynous mating system, meaning that one male may mate with several females, but females usually only mate with a single male. A pregnant female will fight off male “suitors” to prevent further copulations. Litters are born in May or early June. Babies are hairless; after 8 days, the will emit odors, and after 22 days, their eyes will open. After 8 weeks of nursing, their mothers will teach them how to hunt. Fathers have no role in raising their young. It is the mothers who defend them and teach them to obtain food – mothers have actually been observed teaching their young to scratch at hives to lure out honeybees.
Striped skunks have a very high mortality rate. Most do not survive their first year – the most common causes of death are severe weather or infectious disease, which skunks are unfortunately prone to. However, the ones that do survive can live up to seven years in the wild, or ten in captivity. Their greatest defense is their noxious spray, known as musk, which comes from well-developed scent glands on either side of the anus. They can spray up to six feet, and their musk has been known to cause nausea, pain, and even temporary blindness. But contrary to popular belief, skunks do not spray very frequently at all. They are most prone to spraying when startled, but if they are aware of a potential threat, they will more likely display various types of warning behaviors. These include stamping their feet or raising up on their hind legs; they generally only release musk as a last resort.
Despite their negative reputation, these critters actually play a very important role in the ecosystem. They are very important for insect control in many areas, simply because they eat so many of them.
So what should a homeowner do if a skunk finds its way onto their property? First of all, don’t panic! As mentioned previously, skunks do not spray musk very frequently. If the skunk has simply wandered onto the property, chances are it will leave eventually, so give it time. If it has become trapped somewhere, approach slowly without making sudden movements. Cover the trap or the animal itself with a blanket so that it cannot see you, pick it up gently, and release it somewhere safe; the skunk will most likely not spray. If the situation is more precarious, or those involved are too nervous, contact a local wildlife agency, such as the Ohio Wildlife Center, right away. They are trained to handle all sorts of local wildlife, and can either provide more specific instructions or in some cases can dispatch a representative to take care of the animal in a humane way. With help from local residents, Ohio’s relationship with its striped skunks can be healthy and odor-free! –Samantha West