Skunks: Interesting and Fun!!
We seldom reflect on how interesting skunks can be. The nine identified skunk species are notorious for their scent glands that can accurately shoot noxious oily amber spray as a defensive weapon. Two glands, one on each side of their anus, produce the spray, which is a complex mixture of sulfur-containing chemicals. The pungent spray causes irritation to the skin like pepper spray, even temporary blindness—which may be why skunks often try to target the face (Schuster, 1992, p. 34).
Skunk spray is composed primarily of three low-molecular-weight thiol compounds that are detectable by a human’s smell at concentrations of a mere ten parts per billion. Muscles located next to the scent glands allow skunks to spray as far as three meters with a very high degree of accuracy, usually right into the enemy’s face!
Their chemical defense is very effective, as illustrated by this extract from Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man book where he wrote that most animal scents function as sexual attractants, noting that one exception was “the notorious skunk of America, [of which] the overwhelming odor which they emit appears to serve exclusively as a means of defense.” (1871, p. 279).
The spray odor is so strong that it can be detected by humans up to 1.6 km down wind. A skunk’s spray is powerful enough to ward off most potential attackers, even those the size of bears. Ironically, skunks, shy creatures about the size of a housecat, have very few enemies, and rarely need to use their spray to protect themselves (Swanson, 2010). When they do decide to target a potential aggressor they firstly give clear warning, including raising the tail, arching the back, and stomping the feet before spraying (Schuster, 1992, p. 34).
Their unique jet black fur contains wide white stripes shaped like the letter V prominently displayed on their back or variations on this theme depending upon the species. This trademark pattern is very effective in signaling other animals to avoid them, which most do. As a result, it is said that skunks fear neither man nor beast. A common reason for a skunk’s discharge is that it has been struck by a vehicle.
When I was a chemistry graduate student at Miami University, wild skunks were very common on the campus. They went about their business, as we did ours, and rarely ever sprayed students. Skunks are important pest control machines— consuming mostly many kinds of insect pests and harmful worms, even small frogs and rats (Steep, 2014, p. 16).
Skunks as Pets
Skunks make ideal pets. When bred to be docile creatures, not like wild skunks, they are affectionate, friendly, entertaining, playful, clean animals that use a litter box like a cat. As is true of most mammals, the more a baby skunk is handled, the more docile it will be as an adult. Baby skunks like to snuggle inside a T-shirt to be close to their owner. When agitated, the owner has to protect them and calm them down. They also like to sleep with their people as do dogs.
Skunks are sensitive, intelligent animals. Highly curious, they can even open unlocked cupboards and they have excellent smell. They can even smell something that was spilled on a carpet long ago and may attempt to dig into the carpet to find out what was buried there. Their own spray, however, although overwhelmingly repulsive to most animals, does not usually bother them unless they are shot directly in the face.
Skunk kits are born blind, deaf, and covered with a layer of soft fur. Their eyes open after about three weeks, and about two months after birth they are weaned. The mother is very protective of her kits, spraying intruders at any indication of danger. The kits generally stay with their mother until they are about one-year-old when they are ready to mate. The father plays no part in raising the young. As adults, unless a mother has young kits, or has been reared to be a pet, skunks are very solitary animals (Miller, 2015).
Skunks and the African Zorilla are the only known mammals that protect themselves by a powerful foul smelling spray gun. The zorrilla (Ictonyx striatus), also known as the striped polecat, is a single species in the Mustelidae family. Both zorrillas and skunks are nocturnal, but skunks spend their day in the burrows that they dig, and polecats more often sleep their days away in hollow trees or rock crevices. The body markings in the African species are somewhat similar to the black and white pattern of American skunks. Although both skunks and zorrillas defend themselves by spraying, the zorrillas’ spray is judged to be much stronger.
In spite of having an apparently similar spray weapon, those of the South African zorillas and of skunks are actually so different from each other that evolutionists conclude they independently evolved their complex spray weapon systems. Darwinists have been unable to explain the evolution of their complex spray system. The problem is, the system is totally useless until all of the required components are present and properly assembled including the behavioral responses. The system also must include the proper mixture of the many ingredients in their special spray compound (Miller, 2015).
As is the case with many insects, it has even been difficult to classify skunks in an evolutionary taxonomy (Schilthuizen, 2014). The former conclusion was that skunks evolved from a common ancestor with weasels and polecats over 40 million years ago (Stankowich, et al., 2014). Thus, they were consequently classified as a subfamily of the weasel family until genetic evidence disproved this conclusion.
Due to the new genetic research, evolutionists now admit not only that their traditional skunk classification is in serious doubt, but that no other mammal has been found to be even close. Consequently, taxonomists were forced to place skunks in their own separate taxonomic family (Mephitidae as opposed to family Mustelidae for polecats). (Dragoo and Honeycut, 1997). Indeed, skunks and their complex spray gun system, seem to literally have come into existence from nowhere. The skunk is thought by evolutionists to have evolved from 32 to 34 million years ago but, as far as we can tell from the fossil record, the first skunk was fully a modern skunk (Miller, 2015, p. 168). Maybe now we will look at skunks with more interest and appreciation rather than disapproval and disgust!
Darwin, Charles. 1971. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray.
Dragoo, Jerry and Rodney L. Honeycutt 1997. Journal of Mammalogy. 78(2): 426–443.
Miller, Alyce. 2015. Skunk. New York: Reaktion Books
Schilthuizen, Menno. 2014. Nature’s Nether Regions: What the Sex Lives of Bugs, Birds, and Beasts Tell Us About Evolution, Biodiversity, and Ourselves. New York: Penguin Books.
Schuster, Larry. 1992. National Wildlife, pp. 33-39, August/September.
Stankowich, Theodore; Paul J. Haverkamp and Tim Caro. 2014. Evolution: International Journal of Evolution. 68(5):1415-1425. May.
Swanson, Diane. 2010. Skunks. London: Whitecap Books
Steep, Clayton. 2014. Youth, 86:16-17, August.
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