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

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Republicans Like Scott Walker Are Building Campaigns Around Problems That Don’t Exist

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

The World

Iran and the U.S. Are Allies

They just aren’t ready to admit it yet.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

A No-Brainer Approach to Fighting Poverty: Better Birth Control

  News & Politics
The World
Sept. 16 2014 11:56 AM Iran and the U.S. Are Allies Against ISIS but Aren’t Ready to Admit It Yet
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 16 2014 1:23 PM Germany Has Asked Google to Reveal Its Search Algorithm, but That's Not Going to Happen
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 1:27 PM The Veronica Mars Spinoff Is Just Amusing Enough to Keep Me Watching
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 12:33 PM Slate Exclusive: Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 1:39 PM The Case of the Missing Cerebellum How did a Chinese woman live 24 years missing part of her brain?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.