The ability to recognize the different types of skunks may save you serious legal problems that can result from getting caught killing a protected species or having a pet skunk other than those permitted by your city and state. Skunks differ in coat color, coat patterns, and size. Some skunks are friendly woodland visitors, others are a serious nuisance, and still others are most often encountered as pets. And the one thing that surprises the most people about skunks is that not all the different types of skunks have stripes down their backs.
The skunks are a family of small carnivorous mammals mostly native to the Americas from Canada to Argentina. The skunk family also include two kinds of “stink badgers” that live in tropical forests in Indonesia and the Philippines. There are two species of striped skunks in North America, four species of spotted skunks in the southern United States and Central America, four species of hog-nosed skunks mostly in South America, and two species of “stink badgers” in Southeast Asia. In the United States, skunks were once commonly known as “polecats,” although nowadays the term is more commonly applied to unrelated animals that live in Europe. Skunks are distantly related to weasels, ferrets, badgers (of the non-stinking variety in North America and Europe), and otters.
Skunks range from 16 to 39 inches (40 to 98 cm) in length. Spotted skunks, the species of skunks sometimes kept legally as pets, weigh as little as a pound (500 grams). Hog-nosed skunks, wild skunks of Central and South America that have a pink snout resembling a pig’s, may weigh as much as 40 pounds (18 kilos). All species of skunks have short, powerful legs, and paws with five appendages resembling a thumb and four fingers, but with curved claws.
Almost all skunks have stripes somewhere on their bodies. The familiar striped skunk of the United States and Canada has black fur interrupted by two long stripes that extend down its back and onto its tail. It also has a white stripe in the middle of its forehead. This skunk prefers to eat grubs, eggs, and small animals, but it will also dine on fruit, berries, roots, and garbage.
The hooded skunk of the American Southwest and Mexico has a black fur on its underbelly, black fur with a white stripe in the center of its forehead, and white fur on its tail and back. It prefers to eat the fruit of prickly pear cacti, although it will also eat insects and rodents when cacti are hard to find.
Molina’s hog-nosed skunk, which ranges through Argentina, Bolivia, southern Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, has a small, flat, pink nose, and a broad area of white fur on its back interrupted by a faint black stripe.
Humboldt’s hog-nosed skunk, which lives in southern Argentina and a small stretch of the southern coast of Chile, has markings similar to the North American striped skunk except that the center stripe on its back is reddish rather than black. It feeds on insects in warm weather and eats rodents and carrion during the winter.
The American hog-nosed skunk ranges from Texas and New Mexico in the United States throughout Mexico and down to Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. It has a single broad white stripe on its back and tail, and a pink nose that is 3 to 4 times as wide as the nose of a North American striped skunk. This skunk prefers to eat insects but will sometimes forage on corn fields or vegetable gardens. It can also feed on rodents, frogs, and fish.
The striped hog-nosed skunk has dusky brown fur interrupted by two white stripes that extend down its back. It does not have a stripe on its forehead. This skunk prefers to live in dry tropical forests where there are lots of rocks. It is found on the Pacific coasts of Costa Rica, where the terrain is particularly rocky, and on the Pacific coast of Colombia. It is found in northwestern Ecuador and in the arid Bahia state of northeastern Brazil.
Spotted skunks are relatively small animals that are larger than rats but smaller than cats. Their stripes are interrupted by white or colored fur; some spotted skunks resemble Siamese cats. The Southern spotted skunk is found in southern Mexico and in most of Central America. The Western spotted skunk has bands of black and white all over its body. This skunk almost always stands on its forelegs and pivots its scent glands forward to spray. Western spotted skunks are found from Baja California in Mexico through California, Oregon, and Washington, into British Columbia.
The Eastern spotted skunk also has black and white bands around its body. It is unusually social, up to eight adults commonly sharing a den, and unusually active, foraging during the middle of the day and the middle of the night as well as at dawn and dusk. The largest males of this species only weigh about 2.5 pounds (a little over a kilo), and some females may weigh as little as 8 ounces (225 grams). It is well equipped, however, to defend itself with its spray. Eastern spotted skunks are most frequently spotted in Florida, extreme eastern Texas, and the Mississippi River valley in the United States.
An adult pygmy spotted skunk may only grow to be about 4 inches (110 mm) long and may only weigh a few ounces (50 to 100 grams). It lives in burrows on the immediate Pacific coast of Mexico. During floods, it may take refuge in trees. Large numbers of pygmy spotted skunks share nests during the summer, and mothers train their young to hunt, often taking them to steal eggs from bird nests. This species hunches its back into a U shape to point its scent glands at a potential predator. Small as it is, it has relatively few predators.
The Asian stink badgers are also related to North American skunks. The Palawan stink badger lives on the island of Palawan and the neighboring island of Busuanga in the Philippines. It avoids the native cobras by living in grasslands.
The teludu or Javan stink badger looks a great deal like a North American striped skunk except that it has only one stripe down its back rather than two. Like all other skunks, it defends itself from predators with its strong, acrid scent.
Why is it important to know about the various species of skunks? There was a time when the different species of skunks had a fixed and predictable range, but due to climate change and release of exotic pets, almost any kind of skunk can be found somewhere in the United States.
Striped skunks, hooded skunks, spotted skunks, pygmy skunks, and even stink badgers can show up in your lawn or garden—and it’s important to know that just because it doesn’t have black fur and two white stripes does not mean it can’t spray you! Know your skunks and how to control skunks to avoid getting sprayed and to recognize species of skunks that may congregate in large numbers on your property or even under your house. To find out more about skunks, follow this link – facts about skunks.