Striped skunks are the biggest of the skunk species. They are easily identifiable by the white stripe running from head to tail and each individual has a unique pattern of stripes. Skunks are intelligent and usually good natured. As members of the weasel family Mustelidae, they share the characteristics of a musky odor and well-developed scent glands. The skunk excels at this potential and can discharge a foul-smelling fluid as a means of defense. Its scientific name, mephitis, in Latin means “bad odor”. Most skunks do not survive their first year because of infectious disease and severe weather conditions. If they do survive, in the wild they can live for up to 7 years, and in captivity up to 10 years. They can run as fast as 16km/h (10mph).
Striped skunks are natives of North America and occur from northern Mexico to southern Canada. They prefer open areas with a variety of habitats and inhabit a range of areas from wooded areas to riparian canyons, preferring habitats that are thick and brushy.
Habits and lifestyle
Skunks are nocturnal solitary animals, and forage and hunt in the evening. During the day, they nest in the abandoned dens that other animals have lived in, or in brush piles or hollowed logs, or underneath buildings. When it is colder, they prefer to remain in underground dens. During winter for extended periods they are inactive but they do not truly hibernate. Docile in nature, they are famous for their defense system of a bad-smelling spray that comes from two glands near the base of their tail. This oily musk, which is expelled through the anus, may cause temporary blindness or pain if sprayed in the potential attacker’s eyes. Spraying typically takes place after a warning display, where the skunk stomps its feet and arches its back, at the same time raising its tail. Although these animals are usually silent, they can male a wide range of sounds, including hissing, screeching, churring, growling, twittering, and cooing sound during social interactions or when alarmed.
Diet and nutrition
The Striped skunk is an omnivore and eats both plants and meat. Its diet includes insects, fish, crustaceans, small mammals, fruits, nuts, grasses leaves and carrion (dead animals).
Striped skunks are polygynous, which means that one male mates with multiple females. After mating, the female no longer associates with the male and becomes aggressive towards him through vocalizing, stamping her feet and sometimes fighting. The breeding season is from February to April, and females typically give birth once a year. A female will sometimes breed for a second time in May, later in the spring, if she has lost her first litter, or she experienced a pseudopregnancy. Gestation is for around 59 to 77 days, starting with delayed implantation that can be as long as 19 days. Litters number 2 to 10 kits. Newborns are helpless and rely completely on their mother. When they are three weeks old their eyes open; at six to seven weeks weaning takes place. Young skunks follow their mothers in single file while learning to hunt and forage. Striped skunks reach sexual maturity when they are ten months old.
The Striped skunk is threatened by predation, disease, environmental conditions (such as a severe winter or a drought), chemicals, human activities, diseases like rabies and the associated control programs. Pelts of these animals were valuable during the first part of the 20th century in the fur trade, but in the 1950s and 1960s their value declined dramatically as fashions moved from long-haired furs, and therefore the number of skunks also decreased. However, these animals may still be harvested in most parts of Canada and the United States. In some states, like Florida, skunks may be killed only during a season, but harvests year-round are allowed in most states.
According to IUCN, the Striped skunk is common and widely distributed throughout its range but no overall population estimate is available. Currently this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List and its numbers today remain stable.
Due to their diet, Striped skunks may affect insect populations in their range.
Fun facts for kids
- A skunk’s smelly spray can reach up to ten feet, and be detected for up to 1.5 miles.
- Skunks eat honeybees and wasps and often attack beehives.
- Immune to snake venom, these animals will eat poisonous snakes such as rattlesnakes.
- Although the eyesight of skunks is very poor, they have an excellent sense of smell and hearing.
- A “surfeit” is the word for a group of skunks.
- The Striped skunk seems aware of how horrible its own odor is and will not spray in their own dens or in confined spaces.
- Striped skunks have few natural predators, most potential predators repelled by their odor.
- Tomato juice neutralizes the odor and will help remove the smell from clothes, hair and dog fur.
- These skunks only travel about 800 m from their home, yet they can walk about 2 km per night. During the breeding season males may travel as far as 8 km at night.