Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Striped Skunk

 

Susan Post

Imagine a mammal that runs slowly, has little endurance, and eyesight so poor that it has trouble picking out stationary objects over six yards away.  How would it avoid becoming “easy” prey? If that mammal is the striped skunk, it has a potent chemical defense system that assures it will not be bothered.

The striped skunk, Mephitis mephitis, is found only in North America. Its range extends from central Canada to northern Mexico. In Illinois it is common and found throughout the state. While skunks use a wide variety of habitats, they prefer forest borders, brushy areas, and open grassy fields broken by wooded ravines and rock formations. Skunks can dig their own dens, but prefer to use those excavated by other animals such as woodchucks. Den sites include stumps, caves, rock piles, old buildings, junk piles, woodpiles, or dry drainage tiles.

Skunks are about the size of a domestic cat. They have triangular heads and are boldly marked. A skunk is glossy black except for a narrow white stripe on its nose and forehead and a wide white stripe on its back that divides into two stripes that continue part way over the back. The tail is long (6–15 inches) and fluffy. The total length of the animal, including tail, is 20–30 inches.

Skunks are generally solitary, although females will sometimes winter together in underground dens. In early spring males and females mate and the female will give birth in early May to four to eight blind, hairless kittens. At six weeks of age the young skunks will follow their mother single file into the woods to forage for food. They take the same route every night. The mothers are protective of the kittens during the early weeks and assume all training and feeding responsibilities. By the age of 10 months the juvenile skunks are full-grown.

A small, conical hole in a grassy area of lawn that has no dirt around it is a sign that skunks have been digging for grubs. Skunks will eat both plant and animal foods, but insects, such as bees, grasshoppers, and grubs, are preferred foods. They will also eat mice, young rabbits, voles, birds and bird eggs, corn, cherries, and even carrion (dead animals). During the fall skunks build a layer of fat. This layer of fat will provide energy for them during the winter when they spend most of their time sleeping in dens. Skunks are not true hibernators, as they will venture out of their dens if temperatures are above freezing.

Its scientific name comes from the Latin for “a poisonous vapor coming from the ground.” The common name skunk is thought to come from the Abnaki Native American name segonky, meaning “he who urinates.” Another common name is polecat, which is from an old French word meaning “fowl” or “hen,” since skunks often raid the farm henhouse.

While several Illinois mammals have scent glands, the gland development is greatest in the skunk. The skunk’s “poisonous vapor” is an amber, oily liquid stored in musk glands located at the base of the tail. The glands open to the outside through small nipples, which are hidden when the tail is down. The skunk has control over the glands, so the stream may be sprayed as a fine to a powerful stream of liquid beads. The chemical name of the musk is butylmercaptan. The odor molecules of this fluid are powerful enough to be detected through glass, plastic, and metal.

A skunk will give warnings before using its odor defense. These include arching its back, shaking its head, raising its tail, and stamping its feet. When these fail the skunk turns around with tail raised and takes aim. This defense is fairly successful except against  domestic dogs, coyotes, badgers, and great horned owls, which kill a few skunks. Unfortunately, this defense does not work on vehicles or farm machinery, which are major sources of mortality.

Cherokee Native Americans believed that the scent of the skunk would keep away contagious diseases. A “scent bag” containing the odor was hung over the doorway and a small hole was pierced though the bag so the scent would permeate the room. If an epidemic was particularly bad, the entire body of the skunk was hung up, the meat cooked and eaten, and skunk oil rubbed over the skin. While the odor of the skunk may not contain natural chemicals that can combat contagious disease, the odor probably discouraged visits from those who may have been infected and helped stop the spread of the disease, making the stench effective in its own way.

 

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