Skunks are common in natural landscapes due to their distinctive black and white fur. However, people still don’t know many skunk facts.
For instance, besides the infamous spray skunks are known for, they observe complex behaviors, like dancing to scare off predators, and they have a critical ecological role. Moreover, skunks are solitary animals that eat anything from insects to fallen fruit.
Related read: Check out our post on their genetic relative, the adorable red panda!
10 Skunk Facts
1. Skunks are nocturnal animals.
The primarily nocturnal skunks have a distinct black and white coat, emerging from their resting place at dusk to explore their environment3. Their range stretches from the southern regions of Canada to the northern territories of Mexico, and skunks are a quintessential part of the wildlife tapestry across North America.
Various types of skunks also exist, like the eastern spotted skunk, hooded skunk, striped skunk, pygmy spotted skunk, Humboldt's hog-nosed skunk, western spotted skunk, and the stink badgers (recently classified as a member of the skunk family).
Striped skunks are the most common skunk species found across the United States, making their homes across diverse terrains from coasts to mountains.
During the day, skunks live in dens, which may be natural spots like logs or already existing burrows. They can also seek refuge in artificial structures. When the sun sets, they wake up and start looking for food.
Moreover, skunks have poor vision but rely on their sharp sense of hearing and smell to find food at night. Skunks and omnivores and eat insects, small mammals, fruits, and plants.
However, in springtime, female skunks leave their dens during the day to gather additional nutrition for their offspring. Skunks are also adaptable; suburban skunks scour the garbage for leftovers or pet food.
2. Skunks’ stripes are a defense mechanism.
Skunk stripes are a defense mechanism that warns predators not to approach. Likewise, these stripes remain visible in low-light conditions, alerting predators nearby2.
A skunk's stripe typically consists of a single strip running down the center, flanked by white stripes on either side. What do you call this pattern? This pattern's name is 'aposematism,' or how animals use bold colors and patterns to convey danger or undesirable traits.
Intriguingly, other animals have adopted the skunks' striped patterns to deter predators.
3. Skunks dance to scare away predators.
Sometimes, skunk stripes are not enough to deter predators. When this happens, this animal begins to perform an elaborate dance involving stomping and hissing. Small-spotted skunks add handstands on their front paws. Likewise, skunks carefully choreograph each movement to amplify the warning, ending by slamming their tails on the ground.
Surprisingly, skunks rarely use their spray since it depletes their resources. They only use it as a last resort; dancing helps them save energy while scaring off threats.
4. Skunks aim for the eyes.
Another fascinating fact is that skunks can aim their spray at the target with remarkable precision. For example, they often target their opponent's eyes because their spray can blind predators temporarily, giving them time to escape undetected. Their precise spray helps skunks survive against stronger predators.
5. Skunks spray a foul-smelling liquid in self-defense.
The infamous skunk's spray comes from two scent glands filled with a foul-smelling liquid. What is this spray called? It comprises a "musk," emitting a pungent smell; humans can detect skunk odor from 3.5 miles away.
Likewise, it contains sulfur-based compounds like those in garlic and onions1. When a skunk gets ready to spray its opponent, it turns its tail toward the threat and sprays the musk, which can travel up to ten feet.
If you or your dog get sprayed by a skunk, you can remove the skunk smell with chemicals like hydrogen peroxide (not tomato juice!). Or, if you are lucky, you might belong to the few people who can't smell skunks.
6. Skunks’ defensive spray is flammable.
While you don't want to smell skunk spray, you don't want to get it near an open flame. Skunk spray is flammable due to three specific compounds: (E)-2-butene-1-thiol, 3-methyl-1-butanethiol, and 2-quinolinemethanethiol.
These compounds form most of the highly flammable n-butyl mercaptan skunks produce. However, the smelly spray evaporates as a mist instead of lingering as a fluid, preventing it from catching fire upon release.
7. Most skunks carry rabies.
North American skunks, like striped or hog-nosed, carry the rabies virus, which affects the brain and is 100% fatal once symptoms appear. They become exposed to the virus due to their interactions with other wildlife. Similarly, they might catch the virus from scavenging, which leads them to residential areas.
Rabies infects animals through saliva delivered through biting, which is also part of a skunk's defense strategy. Check for the following symptoms if you see a potentially rabid skunk: staggering, excessive drooling, and unusual daytime activity. Moreover, do not approach skunks because they only attack when provoked.
8. Female skunks observe unique reproduction cycles.
Female skunks, or sows, observe a unique reproductive strategy called delayed implantation. This method involves the fertilized egg attaching to the uterine wall only after 14 to 21 days. How does this delay affect the sow? It allows her to time her birth with optimal environmental conditions, particularly in late spring or early summer.
The baby skunks can enjoy plentiful food while enjoying the disappearance of the harsh winter cold. Litter sizes can range from one to ten, with an average of four to six kits. Newborn kits are tiny, bald, and blind, with only traces of their iconic stripes.
As her offspring grows, the mother skunk keeps a watchful eye on them. The kits open their eyes after three weeks, and they learn essential survival skills from their mother during their first year.
9. Skunks enter torpor in the winter.
Skunks preserve energy during the winter by entering a state of torpor. They do not fully hibernate but slow their heart rate and breathing, lowering their body temperature. For example, skunks can leave this state during mild winter days to find food.
While they go through torpor, skunks burn through their fat deposits, causing them to lose up to half their weight by spring. Additionally, skunks in northern regions undergo longer torpor than those in warmer southern areas.
10. Skunks are a species of least concern.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List has classified skunks as a species of "least concern," which indicates a healthy population and widespread distribution. These animals can live in forests, grasslands, suburban backyards, and city parks. However, they still face habitat loss and climate change.
Interestingly, skunks evolved adaptations to environmental changes by acquiring a taste for human leftovers. Additionally, skunks help regulate pest populations. While skunk populations are relatively stable, it is vital to coexist with them because of their ecological role.
We hope you enjoyed this list of interesting facts about skunks!
Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some of the other animals that start with S.
Wood, W. F., Sollers, B. G., Dragoo, G. A., & Sargis, E. J. (2002). Volatile components in defensive spray of the hooded skunk, Mephitis macroura. Journal of Chemical Ecology, 28(9), 1865-1870.
Caro, T. (2005). The adaptive significance of coloration in mammals. BioScience, 55(2), 125-136.
Verts, B. J., & Carraway, L. N. (2001). Mephitis mephitis. Mammalian Species, (686), 1-10.