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skunk

skunk

[skuhngk]
skunk, name for several related New World mammals of the weasel family, characterized by their conspicuous black and white markings and use of a strong, highly offensive odor for defense. The scent glands of skunks produce an oily, yellowish liquid, which the animal squirts with great force from vents under the tail; this produces a fine mist which, in addition to stinking, causes choking and tearing of the eyes. Skunks do not make use of this weapon unless severely provoked and then only after raising the tail in a warning display. Most animals quickly learn to recognize and avoid skunks, which are consequently quite fearless and move about openly. The two common skunks of the United States, the striped skunk and the spotted skunk, are nocturnal animals; their diets include rodents, insects, eggs, carrion, and vegetable matter. They live, often several individuals or families together, in dens made in abandoned burrows or buildings or in rock piles. Most familiar is the striped skunk, Mephitis mephitis, of the United States, N Mexico, and Canada S of Hudson Bay. It has thick black fur, usually with two white stripes on the back. It is 13 to 18 in. (33-46 cm) long, excluding the bushy tail (7-10 in./18-25 cm), and weighs 6 to 14 lb (2.7-6.4 kg). Because it destroys pests, it is protected in many states. In northern parts of their range the animals sleep through much of the winter, but they do not truly hibernate and may emerge during warm spells. The small, slender, spotted skunk, Spilogale putorius, has several irregular white stripes or lines of spots. It inhabits Mexico and the W, S, and central United States. Its combined head and body length is 9 to 13 in. (23-33 cm) and the tail is 4 to 9 in. (10-23 cm) long. This skunk balances on its front paws as part of its warning display. Central and South American skunks, species of the genus Conepatus, have white backs and tails and black underparts. Good diggers with large claws, they root in the ground for food. One species, the hognose skunk (Conepatus leuconotus), ranges as far north as the SW United States. Skunk fur, especially that of the striped skunk, is much used for coat trimmings. The animals are sometimes kept as pets, usually after having the scent glands removed. Skunks are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Carnivora, family Mustelidae.

Any of three species of plants that grow in temperate bogs and meadows, emitting unpleasant odours as they grow. The eastern North American skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus, of the arum family) has large fleshy leaves, purple-brown spathes, and a skunklike odour. The western, or yellow, skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanum), also an arum, bears a large yellow spathe and is found from California to Alaska and eastward to Montana. The third species, Veratrum californicum, is the poisonous corn lily, or false hellebore, of the lily family, which grows from New Mexico and Baja California northward to Washington State.

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or skunk bear

Wolverine (Gulo gulo).

Solitary, voracious, nocturnal carnivore (Gulo gulo) that inhabits northern timberlands worldwide. Wolverines are 26–36 in. (65–90 cm) long and 14–18 in. (36–45 cm) high, and weigh 20–65 lbs (9–30 kg); the bushy tail is 5–10-in. (13–26-cm) long. They have short bowed legs, hairy soles, and long, sharp claws. Their long, coarse hair, used to trim parkas, is blackish brown, with a light horizontal strip. The anal glands secrete an unpleasant-smelling fluid. A cunning, fearless predator, the wolverine will attack almost any animal, including sheep, deer, and small bears.

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Striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis).

Any of several black-and-white New World species in the carnivore family Mephitidae that eject an odoriferous liquid (as far as 12 ft [3.7 m]) when threatened. The liquid becomes a fine mist that causes tearing of the eyes and choking. Some scent-gland secretions are used in perfume. Species vary in colour pattern and size. Most are 18–37 in. (46–93 cm) long, including the bushy tail, and weigh 2–13 lb (1–6 kg); the two species of spotted skunk (genus Spilogale) are much smaller. Skunks eat rodents, insects, eggs, birds, and plants. The striped, or common, skunk (Mephitis mephitis) is a nocturnal feeder that occurs in most of North America. With its scent glands removed, it is sometimes kept as a pet. The common skunk is a major carrier of rabies, which is fatal to skunks. The seven species of hog-nosed skunk (genus Conepatus) have a long, bald snout. The hooded skunk (Mephitis macroura) has a neck ruff.

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Skunks (sometimes referred to as polecats) are mammals best known for their ability to excrete a strong, foul-smelling odor. General appearance ranges from breed to breed from black and white to brown or cream colored fur. They belong to the family Mephitidae and to the order Carnivora. There are 11 species of skunks, which are divided into four genera: Mephitis (hooded and striped skunks, two species), Spilogale (spotted skunks, two species), Mydaus (stink badgers, two species), and Conepatus (hog-nosed skunks, five species). The two skunk species in the Mydaus genus inhabit Indonesia and the Philippines; all other skunks inhabit the Americas from Canada to central South America.

Skunks were formerly considered to be a subfamily of the Mustelidae family of weasels and related animals (where some taxonomists still place them), but recent genetic evidence shows that they are not as closely related to the Mustelidae as formerly thought.

Physical description

Skunk species vary in size from about 15.6 to 37 inches (40 to 70 cm) and in weight from about 1.1 pounds (0.5 kg) (the spotted skunks) to 18 pounds (8.2 kg) (the hog-nosed skunks). They have a moderately elongated body with reasonably short, well-muscled legs, and long front claws for digging.

Although the most common fur color is black and white, some skunks are brown or gray, and a few are cream-colored. All skunks are striped, even from birth. They may have a single thick stripe across back and tail, two thinner stripes, or a series of white spots and broken stripes (in the case of the spotted skunk). Some also have stripes on their legs.

Diet

Skunks are omnivorous, eating both plant and animal material and changing their diet as the seasons change. They eat insects and larvae, earthworms, small rodents, lizards, salamanders, frogs, snakes, birds, moles, and eggs. They also commonly eat berries, roots, leaves, grasses, fungi, and nuts.

In settled areas, skunks also seek human garbage. Less often, skunks may be found acting as scavengers, eating bird and rodent carcasses left by cats or other animals. Pet owners, particularly those of cats, may experience a skunk finding its way into a garage or basement where pet food is kept.

Skunks are one of the primary predators of the honeybee, relying on their thick fur to protect them from stings. The skunk scratches at the front of the beehive and eats the guard bees that come out to investigate. Mother skunks are known to teach this to their young. A skunk family can virtually depopulate a healthy hive in just a few days.

Skunks tend to be gluttonous feeders. They gain weight quickly if their diet becomes too fatty.

Behavior

Skunks are crepuscular, and are solitary animals when not breeding, though in the colder parts of their range they may gather in communal dens for warmth. During the day they shelter in burrows that they dig with their powerful front claws, or in other man-made or natural hollows as the opportunity arises. Both sexes occupy overlapping home ranges through the greater part of the year; typically 2 to 4 km² for females, up to 20 km² for males.

Skunks do not hibernate in the winter. However, they do remain generally inactive and feed rarely. They often overwinter in a huddle of one male and multiple (as many as twelve) females. The same winter den is often repeatedly used.

Although they have excellent senses of smell and hearing — vital attributes in a crepuscular omnivore — they have poor vision. They cannot see objects more than about 3 metres away with any clarity, which makes them vulnerable to road traffic. Roughly half of all skunk deaths are caused by humans, as roadkill, or as a result of shooting and poisoning. They are short-lived animals: fewer than 10% survive for longer than three years.

Reproduction

Skunks typically mate in early spring and are a polygynous species, meaning that males usually mate with more than one female. Before giving birth (usually in May), the female will excavate a den to house her litter of four to seven kits. They are placental, with a gestation period of about 66 days.

When born, skunk kits are blind, deaf, and covered in a soft layer of fur. About three weeks after birth, their eyes open. The kits are weaned about two months after birth, but generally stay with their mother until they are ready to mate, at about one year of age.

The mother is very protective of her kits, and will often spray at any sign of danger. The male plays no part in raising the young and may even kill them.

Anal scent glands

The notorious feature of skunks is their anal scent glands, which they can use as a defensive weapon. They are similar to, though much more developed than, the glands found in species of the Mustelidae family. Skunks have two glands, one on either side of the anus, that produce a mixture of sulfur-containing chemicals (methyl and butyl thiols (mercaptans)) that has a highly offensive smell that can be described as a combination of the odors of rotten eggs, garlic and burnt rubber. The odor of the fluid is strong enough to ward off bears and other potential attackers, and can be difficult to remove from clothing. Muscles located next to the scent glands allow them to spray with high accuracy as far as 2 to 5 metres (7 to 15 ft). The smell aside, the spray can cause irritation and even temporary blindness, and is sufficiently powerful to be detected by even an insensitive human nose anywhere up to a mile downwind. Their chemical defense, though unusual, is effective, as illustrated by this extract from Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle:

We saw also a couple of Zorrillos, or skunks—odious animals, which are far from uncommon. In general appearance the Zorrillo resembles a polecat, but it is rather larger, and much thicker in proportion. Conscious of its power, it roams by day about the open plain, and fears neither dog nor man. If a dog is urged to the attack, its courage is instantly checked by a few drops of the fetid oil, which brings on violent sickness and running at the nose. Whatever is once polluted by it, is for ever useless. Azara says the smell can be perceived at a league distant; more than once, when entering the harbour of Monte Video, the wind being off shore, we have perceived the odour on board the Beagle. Certain it is, that every animal most willingly makes room for the Zorrillo.

Skunks are reluctant to use their smelly weapon, as they carry just enough of the chemical for five or six uses—about 15 cc—and require some ten days to produce another supply. Their bold black and white coloring however serves to make the skunk's appearance memorable. Where practical, it is to a skunk's advantage to simply warn a threatening creature off without expending scent: the black and white warning color aside, threatened skunks will go through an elaborate routine of hisses, foot stamping, and tail-high threat postures before resorting to the spray. Interestingly, skunks will not spray other skunks (with the exception of males in the mating season); though they fight over den space in autumn, they do so with tooth and claw.

The singular musk-spraying ability of the skunk has not escaped the attention of biologists: the names of the family and the most common genus (Mephitidae, Mephitis) mean "stench", and Spilogale putorius means "stinking spotted weasel". The word skunk is a corruption of an Abenaki name for them, segongw or segonku, which means "one who squirts" in the Algonquian dialect.

Most predatory animals of the Americas, such as wolves, foxes and badgers, seldom attack skunks—presumably out of fear of being sprayed. The exception is the great horned owl, the animal's only serious predator, which, like most birds, has a poor-to-nonexistent sense of smell.

Skunk spray is composed mainly of low molecular weight thiol compounds, namely (E)-2-butene-1-thiol, 3-methyl-1-butanethiol, and 2-quinolinemethanethiol, as well as acetate thioesters of each of these. These compounds are detectable at concentrations of about 2 parts per million.

Bites

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 1,494 cases of rabies in skunks in the United States for the year 2006—about 21.5% of reported cases in all species. Skunks trail raccoons as vectors of rabies, although this varies regionally (raccoons dominate along the Atlantic coast and eastern Gulf of Mexico, skunks throughout the Midwest and down to the western Gulf, and in California). Despite this prevalence, all recorded cases of human rabies from 1990–2002 are attributed by the CDC to dogs or bats.

Domestication

Domesticated skunks can legally be kept as pets in the UK. However, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 has made it illegal to remove their scent glands (it is considered to be a cosmetic operation), thus making them impractical as pets. Owners have been known to dump skunks in the wild when they discover that vets will no longer perform the operation to remove their scent glands.

The keeping of skunks as pets is legal only in certain U.S. states. Mephitis mephitis, the striped skunk species, is the most social skunk and the one most commonly domesticated. When the skunk is kept as a pet, the scent gland is removed. Typical life spans for domesticated skunks are considerably longer than for wild skunks, often reaching 10 years, though it is not unusual for a well cared skunk to live well past 20 years.

One problem with U.S. skunks kept as pets is genetic problems due to a lack of genetic diversity. The few breeders of skunks are using the same genetic stock (as none are allowed to be taken from the wild) that was available many decades ago, when skunks were bred for the fur trade instead of the pet trade. Many problems such as undescended testicles, epileptic seizures, etc. are often found with the domestic stock. Some skunks were reported by European settlers in America as being kept as pets by certain Native Americans. The Pilgrims are said to have kept skunks as pets.

Classification

See also

References

External links

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