The life story of a skunk.

News and commentary about environmental issues.
Oct. 12 2009 11:23 AM

Skunks

From a continuing series on revolting creatures.

More revolting creatures: the snapping turtle, vulture, the tick, the jellyfish, and the slug.

A mother skunk trailed by six little striped kits is a sight at least as charming as ducklings following their mother. Skunks themselves are not revolting. It's the pungent, oily, yellow-green liquid that streams out of nozzles on either side of a skunk's anus that is revolting. Lovable though the creatures are, there will never be a children's book called Make Way for Skunks.

Skunk.
Skunk

It is the skunk's confidence in that potent defensive weapon that makes its personality appealing. The critters, the size of a small cat but with a wider rump and a bit of a waddle, are the opposite of aggressive. Most of the time they're curious, playful, fearless, and calm (though in late winter, mating season, the males go haywire). A devil-may-care attitude does not serve them well on the highway. The poor creatures stick their tails straight up as a warning to a car. It doesn't work; most of us know the smell of skunk musk from road kill.

Fatal encounters with cars aside, skunks enjoy living near human beings. They're comfortable making a den under a porch or in a garage. (Some musk can leak into their feces, making them less than perfect neighbors.) Omnivorous, they treat our garbage bags like piñatas. They eat vegetables, berries, nuts, mushrooms, lizards, snakes, baby turtles and turtle eggs, birds, moles, worms—practically anything. That "anything" includes bees munched off the side of a hive and jalapeño peppers. To the benefit of the farmer and gardener, they eat mouse and rat nestlings, snails, cockroaches, and beetle grubs. On the negative side, they sometimes eat chicks and eggs.

Advertisement

As skunks cozy up to us, the reassuring news is that they are extremely reluctant to go nuclear. The typical skunk reacts only to truly threatening behavior. Are some skunks more trigger-happy than others? It seems logical that there's a cost to spraying—that it takes some time to recharge, when the animal would be vulnerable—but it turns out the scent glands refill quickly.

Before firing, a skunk will perform a complex warning dance, first backing away from a predator, tail raised as a warning flag, then stomping its front feet. The spotted skunk, smaller than the more common striped skunk, does a handstand that is, disregarding the possibility of subsequent spray, one of the cutest sights on earth. Should the aggressor fail to get the hint, the skunk, striped or spotted, turns its body into an ominous curve, both nose and rear end pointed at the threat.

The animal pops out the nipples leading from its grape-size anal glands, then rotates them like an anti-aircraft gun, at the same time adjusting the spray like a hose nozzle. When face to face with an aggressor, the skunk aims a jet at the attacker's eyes. When the predator is at a distance, the skunk sprays a mist up to 15 feet.

The system is a highly evolved version of the glands for scent marking possessed by all carnivores. Think unneutered cats. Europe has no wild skunks; South America's zorillo and Asia's stink badger have the same capability.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Why Time Is on Our Side in the Fight Against Ebola

The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:58 PM The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

Catacombs Where You Can Stroll Down Hallways Lined With Corpses

Homeland Is Good Again! For Now.

Crime

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

The U.S. Has a New Problem in Syria: The Moderate Rebels Feel Like We’ve Betrayed Them

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

Trending News Channel
Oct. 1 2014 1:25 PM Japanese Cheerleader Robots Balance and Roll Around on Balls
  News & Politics
Crime
Oct. 1 2014 4:15 PM The Trials of White Boy Rick A Detroit crime legend, the FBI, and the ugliness of the war on drugs.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
  Life
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 1 2014 4:55 PM Blood Before Bud? Must a gentleman’s brother always be the best man at his wedding?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 3:02 PM The Best Show of the Summer Is Getting a Second Season
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 4:46 PM Ebola Is No Measles. That’s a Good Thing. Comparing this virus to scourges of the past gives us hope that we can slow it down.
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?