Critter Corner No. 6 – The Striped Skunk by George Sly

On a recent drive through Goose Pond FWA, I saw a sad but all too common sight along the highway. Lying at the side of the road was the lifeless body of one of GPFWA’s most interesting mammals – a striped skunk. After spending the harsh winter in a prolonged state of inactivity, these strikingly marked animals seem to succumb to an insatiable wanderlust. Driven by the dual urges of hunger and reproductive instinct, striped skunks begin to prowl the countryside in search of food and mates. Conservationist Aldo Leopold, in his wonderfully poetic way, described the track of one such individual through a late winter snow. “. . . it leads straight across-country, as if its maker had hitched his wagon to a star and dropped the reins.” Unfortunately such wanderings all too often result in the skunk making an incautious foray onto a roadway. It seems to me that the roads of late January and February are especially unkind.

The striped skunk was, for many years, placed by taxonomists into the same family as the weasels. With the rise of molecular biology (DNA analysis particularly) this taxonomy has been revised. Skunks are now placed into their own family which is called the Mephitidae. In the eastern United States there are two species within this family, the striped skunk and the spotted skunk. The latter is now considered extinct in Indiana. It is thought that Indiana was positioned at the northern edge of the spotted skunk’s geographic range. Written references to spotted skunks in Indiana are based upon specimens from more southerly counties such as Knox and Posey. So far as I am aware, the only actual physical evidence of spotted skunk in Indiana is a mandible found in a cave in Lawrence County in the late 1950’s. Our striped skunk bears the scientific moniker of Mephitis mephitis. This name is derived from the Latin word for a noxious vapor. The ability of this species to spray such a “vapor” is likely the aspect of the striped skunk’s biology most familiar to people. I’m sure many of us have had the unpleasant task of trying to rid our dog of the odor bestowed upon it as the result of an impetuous assault on a striped skunk. The spray of the skunk is comprised of a chemical with an official name as long as one’s arm but it is basically a sulfur-containing compound called butyl mercaptan. This chemical is forcefully released from a pair of glands located just inside the skunk’s anal opening. The spray is a defensive weapon of course and its effect goes well beyond being unpleasant to smell. I was once afield with one of my dogs when it ran afoul of a striped skunk. Perceiving the dog, the skunk arched its back, raised its bristles and tail, and quickly turned its posterior to the dog. All of these were signs that it meant business. The dog in question was about to have its first encounter with an exceedingly irritated striped skunk. Growling and rushing toward the skunk, the dog received a full blast of the spray in its face. The reaction was immediate and intense. Yelping and leaping away from the skunk, the poor victim began salivating powerfully. The pitiful hound shook its head violently as if attempting to throw off the substance so painfully attacking its eyes. He rubbed his face upon the ground as the powerful burning in the eyes intensified. The nauseated dog retched, foamed at the mouth, and otherwise demonstrated the total debilitation the skunk had inflicted upon it. Henceforth I had a much greater appreciation of just how effective the defensive spray of a striped skunk could be. Under normal circumstances, and given room to maneuver, the striped skunk is perfectly content to mind its own business.

Most of the individuals I’ve run across were busily moving along with their peculiar waddling gait, nose pressed to the ground in their apparently perpetual search for food. Striped skunks are omnivorous although they do have a tendency to feed heavily upon insects. These often take the form of beetles and their larvae, the so-called grubworms. Skunks will also eat other mammals including mice and shrews. Bird eggs and fruits, such as persimmons, are common in the diet of striped skunks too. Striped skunks utilize a variety of habitats including woods, oldfields, vegetated fencerows, riparian vegetation, and brushy fields. They are sometimes seen abroad during daylight hours, especially toward evening, but are mostly nocturnal in their activities. Striped skunks utilize burrows as dens. These may be dug by the skunk itself or may have been constructed by woodchucks or other larger burrow-diggers. Striped skunks have one litter of young per year (February or March) and generally produce four to six offspring at a time. Striped skunks, like most wild mammals, harbor a variety of parasites including fleas, lice, mites, and ticks. Internal parasites which have been found in skunks include flukes, tapeworms, and nematode worms. They are also vulnerable to distemper and rabies. As noted, being killed upon a road is a major danger to striped skunks. One their major natural predators is said to be the great horned owl. The striped skunk represents just one more mammals that you might encounter on a visit to the Goose Pond FWA. Although often castigated by humans, the striped skunk is but another example of an exceedingly interesting mammalian species busily attending to its role in the grand web of wetland life.