Skunks (Mephitidae family) are some of the most well-known mammals in the world due to their famous defense mechanisms. All have the ability to spray a liquid from their anal scent glands that, in addition to smelling foul can cause irritation and even temporary blindness. Skunks can hit targets up to ten feet away with their spray, so most other animals give them a wide berth.
There are twelve species of skunks divided into four genera. Ten of these species can only be found in the Americas, while the two species in the Myadus genus, known as stink badgers, are native to Indonesia and the Philippines.
Depending on species, skunks are between 8 and 19 inches long and weigh 2-14lbs, with most being about the size of a house cat. All feature some sort of vivid white pattern on their black fur; this is presumably to make their appearance memorable and serve as a warning to would-be predators not to come too close. Skunks have excellent senses of smell and hearing, but very poor eyesight and cannot clearly see objects more than ten feet away.
Skunks are omnivorous and are opportunistic feeders. Common prey includes insects, small rodents, lizards, snakes and frogs. Skunks will also forage for a variety of fruits, nuts and berries and will eat carrion if it is available. In populated areas it is not uncommon for skunks to dine on human garbage or raid garages where pet food is stored.
Skunks live in underground burrows that they dig themselves. Though they sometimes den alone, in colder climates females often will huddle together for warmth. Skunks do not hibernate but are comparatively inactive in the winter, rarely leaving the den to feed.
The skunk’s only real natural predator is the great horned owl, which has a poor sense of smell and is mostly unaffected by skunk spray. Despite a lack of predators, skunks have short life spans. Their poor eyesight causes them to be frequent victims of vehicle strikes, and fewer than 10% live more than three years.
The smell of a skunk’s spray can be detected by humans from over one mile away. The smell has been described as a combination of rotten eggs, garlic and burnt rubber.
Skunks only carry enough spray for about six uses. It takes up to ten days for them to produce more.
University of Michigan Museum of Zoology
University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources