Skunks amble boldly forth wherever they please, never seeming to be in much of a hurry. One might think that an animal so small would constantly scurry for cover to avoid predation by higher-ups on the food chain. Because he has a powerful secret weapon, this mild-mannered little guy worries little about such tripe and typically ignores other animals. Once a predator is skunked, he’s likely to steer clear of Pepe LePew forevermore. Fierce proponents for female equality, girl skunks stink every bit as much as boys -- and spray with the same deadly accuracy.
Words for the Wise
These rather unassuming little critters don’t look the least bit dangerous -- lots of folks think they’re downright cute. Of the four skunk species native to North America, the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) is the most common and widespread.
Color is no indication of a skunk’s gender, as adult males and females look identical with males being only slightly larger. Like many other animals who employ poison as their primary means of self defense, the skunk is distinctively marked in bold patterns to advertise his potency to would-be enemies. With the exception of the occasional domestic dog, nearly all animals interpret the unmistakable black and white coloring as the warning it’s meant to be. Because some dogs just never get the message, repeat encounters are common.
Ready -- Strange Brew
One of the best-known skunk characteristics is the critter’s self-defense weapon of choice -- incredibly offensive eau de p.u. The animal produces a thick, yellowish, musky, oily fluid made up of about seven stinky compounds that vaporize rapidly into gases. The fluid is stored in two walnut-sized scent glands at the base of the tail. These glands contain enough musk for five or six sprays and are replenished as needed. A long duct runs from each gland and out through the animal’s anus.
When the skunk feels threatened or alarmed, he presses downward on the glands with strong hip muscles. The malodorous musk is ready to be forcefully spewed as spray in any direction the little guy can point his derriere. The skunk is capable of discharging foul spray from one or both scent glands at will.
Aim -- Red Flags
Being inept runners and lousy fighters, skunks turn to noxious spray as the last resort when self-defense becomes necessary. In all fairness, the normally docile little stinker gives his adversary plenty of warning before the strike. To conserve musk yet deter a threat, the skunk bluffs at first: with forward lunges, hissing, snarling, foot stomping, backward shuffling and tail raising, arching and fluffing. If the threat persists, the skunk whips his backside around and assumes the position.
Fire -- You've Been Skunked
Don’t be fooled by cute little baby skunks, some of which began spraying before their eyes were open. Skunk kits are armed with the same noxious potion that their parents carry, and it’s just as potent. Adults may spew spray over 15 feet with the highest degree of accuracy at or below 10 feet. Skunk spray mist can drift downwind as far as 45 feet, carrying the essence up to a mile in all directions.
A confrontation with an annoyed skunk typically results in a full facial onslaught for the offender. Spray in the eyes acts like tear gas, causing intense burning often followed by temporary blindness. Breathing the foul vapor induces retching and nausea. Pity the poor wild animal that crosses a skunk and subsequently carries his own parfum de nausea for a number of weeks.
- Mephitis mephitis -- Striped Skunk
- Northern State University: An Educator's Guide to South Dakota's Natural Resources: Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis)
- UC IPM Online: Skunks
- The Virtual Nature Trail Penn State New Kensington: Striped Skunk
- Squam Lakes Natural Science Center: Striped Skunk
- VCA Animal Hospitals: Skunk Spray and Your Dog
- Skunk Haven: An Introduction to Skunks
- Humboldt State University Department of Chemistry: Skunk Defensive Secretion
- Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Getty Images