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 Irritating Confidante

John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee

Medical Examiner

Is It Better to Be a Hero Like Batman?

Or an altruist like Bruce Wayne?

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

The World’s Human Rights Violators Are Signatories on the World’s Human Rights Treaties

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 12:44 AM We Need More Ben Bradlees His relationship with John F. Kennedy shows what’s missing from today’s Washington journalism.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 11:44 PM Driving in Circles The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.