Why Are Skunks Black and White?

skunks-black-white Credit: Bill McMullen/Moment/Getty Images

A skunk's coloring is not meant to blend in to its surroundings. Unlike the coats of many other animals, it is not used for camouflage. Research suggests that this distinct coat color may serve as a warning to other predators that the black and white animal has a chemical defense, or that it is particularly fierce.

While investigating the coloring of skunks, scientists examined data on 188 different species of small carnivorous mammals. Their evidence suggests that animals that are black and white share a group of characteristics, including the ability to spray chemicals, live in burrows in otherwise exposed environments, are stocky in body shape, and are nocturnal. In addition, these scientists found that if the stripes lead horizontally to the tail, the mammal was more likely able to use a chemical defense located under it.

In another study, scientists found that when a stuffed animal was painted like a skunk and placed in an area where skunks are naturally found, it was left alone by predators, even if it did not have the correct body shape for a skunk. This suggests that predators learn the colors of a skunk quickly and stay away from anything that looks like it.