From Academic Kids

For other uses, see Skunk (disambiguation).
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Striped Skunk

Striped Skunk
Scientific classification


The skunks or Mephitidae are a family of medium-sized mammals, typically black-and-white-furred, belonging to the order Carnivora. They are found throughout both North and South America, being absent only from the far north of Canada. Skunks are best known for their ability to spray a foul-smelling fluid as a defense against predators. The odor of this fluid is strong enough to strike fear in bears and other potential attackers. The odor can be difficult to remove from human clothing.

The skunk is sometimes called a polecat in North America because of its similarity to the European polecat (Mustela putorius), a member of the Mustelidae family.

Skunk species vary in size from about 40 to almost 70 centimetres, and in weight from about half a kilogram (the Spotted Skunks, genus Spilogale) up to as much as 6 kilograms (the well-known Striped Skunk of North America). All species share a similar form: a moderately elongated body with reasonably short, well-muscled legs, and long front claws for digging.

Although the most common coloration for skunks is black and white, some skunks are brown or grey in color, 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.

Skunks are nocturnal carnivores: they eat a great many insects and their larvae, especially by digging for them, and they are keen mousers. Frogs, salamanders, bird eggs, snakes, and carrion are also important. In settled areas, human garbage is sought.

Skunks are solitary animals when not breeding, but may gather together to keep warm in communal dens in the coldest part of their range. 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.

Breeding usually takes place in early spring. 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 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.

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.

The best-known and most distinctive feature of the skunks is the great development of their scent glands, which they can use as a defensive weapon. They have two glands, on either side of the anus, that produce a mixture of sulfur-containing chemicals (methyl and butyl mercaptans) that has a highly offensive smell. 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 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 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 Zorillo.

Because skunks have only enough scent for 5 or 6 "reloads" —about 1 tablespoon (15 grams)—and take a couple of days to refill their scent glands, they are reluctant to expend their "ammunition". This is why skunks have such bold black and white colouring: to ensure they are as visible and as memorable as possible. 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 expelling a shower of scent. 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 musk-spraying ability of the skunk has not escaped the attention of biologists: the name of the most common species, Mephitis mephitis, means "stench 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).

Skunks are closely related to the weasel group and although they are now generally classfied as a separate family within the same order, some taxonomists still place them as a subfamily of the Mustelidae.

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. 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.

Removing the smell of skunk

The following Skunk Smell Remover Formula is effective in removing skunk smell from sprayed victims, as proven in an episode of MythBusters

Directions: Mix together at time of usage, and apply foaming mixture to affected areas.

How it works: The oxygen molecules emitted by the hydrogen peroxide and baking soda reaction deactivate the smell molecules by binding to them and rendering them inert.

Folklore also claims tomato juice to be a potent skunk smell remover. Tomato juice has no chemical effect on the skunk smell, but it does have a distinct odor of its own. According to the Indiana University School of Medicine:

The smell receptors in your nose bind the skunk odor so tightly that eventually you stop smelling it so much. This is called "olfactory fatigue". At that point, the tomato juice you've just bathed your pet with is a new smell that your nose is not used to yet. After a while, though, the tomato juice smell will go away and that skunk odor will come back. [1] (

See also


eo:Mefito fr:Moufette he:בואשיים lt:Skunkiniai nl:Mephitidae ja:スカンク fi:Haisundt


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