North and South American Skunks are carnivorous mammals, but they’re not rodents. Scientists originally placed them into the weasel subfamily, Mustelidae. Members of that family include ferrets, badgers, minks, otters, wolverines, and several others. Rodents belong to the mammalian group, Rodentia. Around 40% of mammals are rodents and inhabit six continents; the exception is Antarctica.
Some examples of common wild rodents are rats, mice, chipmunks, squirrels, porcupines, and rabbits. Parents often buy domesticated rodents as first pets for young children. The most favored of these are hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, and mice. But did you know that de-scented Skunks can also make fabulous pets for adults (more on that later)?
A Brief History of Skunks
Skunks belong to a subfamily of the weasel. Some experts, though, now place them into their own family, Mephitidae. Mephitidae comes from the Latin word mephitis, which means ‘bad odor.’ The Asian Stink Badgers used to belong in the badger subfamily, but scientists have since reclassified them as skunks. The oldest skunk fossil was found in Germany and thought to be around 12 million years old.
There are fossilized records of striped skunks native to southern Canada, the United States, and northern Mexico. Paleontologists dated the earliest Mephitidae fossils—found in Nebraska—to the Early Pleistocene. The Pleistocene epoch began around 2.6 million years ago and ended 11,700 years ago.
Skunks are nocturnal creatures, which means they’re most active during the night. They’re also solitary animals, except during the breeding season. However, females may den together for warmth and security in the coldest climates. All skunk species have black & white coats, though the fur can be stripy, spotted, or swirled. The animals have 5 toes on their front paws and 4 on the back.
Twelve species of skunk belong to 4 distinct genera. Most Americans only come across 4 species. They are all furry and about the size of domestic cats. The largest adults can reach 19-inches in length and weigh around 14 lbs. The magnificent tails add 15-inches to the biggest animals. Smaller skunks are only 8 inches long, with tails of about 5 inches, and a weight of just 7 lbs.
The biggest species is the American hog-nosed skunk, which is well above average. It can grow to over 30 inches in length. Most of the skunk population inhabit North and South America. Stink badgers, though, are prevalent in Southeast Asia, namely the Philippines and Indonesia. All species of skunk are omnivores. Their diet includes plants, fruit, insects, worms, larvae, small fish, and mammals.
Skunk species and their scientific names
Below is an alphabetical list of known skunk species along with their scientific names:
#1 Family: Mephitidae | Genus: Conepatus
1. American hog-nosed skunk: Conepatus leuconotus
2. Humboldt’s hog-nosed skunk: Conepatus humboldtii
3. Molina’s hog-nosed skunk: Conepatus chinga
4. Striped hog-nosed skunk: Conepatus semistriatus
#2 Genus: Mephitis
5. Hooded skunk: Mephitis macroura
6. Striped skunk: Mephitis mephitis
#3 Genus: Mydaus
7. Javan or Sunda stink badger (Teledu): Mydaus javanensis
8. Mydaus marchei: Palawan stink badger
#4 Genus: Spilogale
9. Southern spotted skunk: Spilogale angustifrons
10. Western spotted skunk: Spilogale gracilis
11. Eastern spotted skunk: Spilogale putorius
12. Pygmy spotted skunk: Spilogale pygmaea
Let’s now look at the traits of the 4 most common skunk types:
#1 Hog-nosed skunks
The hog-nosed skunk is the most carnivorous. They are expert hole diggers and proficient climbers. Powerful upper bodies enable them to move effortlessly around rough terrain. And their elongated snouts make light work of foraging for food. Their diet consists of insects and smaller mammals, especially rodents. Hog-nosed skunks are a farmer’s friend as they prey on crop-destroying pests.
#2 Hooded skunks
Hooded skunks are native to the southern US, Mexico, and parts of Central America. They can adapt to live in multiple habitats, though their preference tends to be rocky, vegetated areas close to water. A typical diet consists of fruits, bird eggs, insects, grubs, small vertebrates, and human food garbage.
Hooded skunks look like the striped variety at a glance, but they’re quite different. They have a much softer coat, longer tails, and a hood of white fur around the neck and down the back. Some even have two thin white stripes that extend into the tail.
#3 Western spotted skunks
The beautiful western spotted skunk is a slender creature and incredibly lively. It can navigate trees with the agility of a squirrel. Spotted skunks tend to reach sexual maturity earlier than other species. Their diet typically consists of small vertebrates, insects, grubs, small lizards, rodents, and berries.
#4 Striped skunks
The striped skunk is tough but sluggish compared to the spotted variety. Thus, it stays mostly on the ground. It’s well-known for its ability to adapt to human environments. These creatures tend to inhabit bushy corners, mixed woodlands, rocky outcrops, and wooded ravines. Striped skunks feast on vegetable matter, eggs, insects, small birds, moles and other mammals, reptiles, and fish, etc.
The Skunk Breeding Cycle
Skunks mate in early spring and the female drives the male away when his job’s done. She can store his sperm separate from her eggs for later use if weather conditions are unfavorable for conception.
The eyes of a newborn skunk open after about 3 weeks, and baby skunks grow up fast. Kits are weaned somewhere around 2 months but stay with mom until they’re ready to mate. Most leave the den 10–12 months after birth. The average life expectancy of a wild skunk is just 3 years, though it varies between species. Life is often cut even shorter due to disease, predators, and roadkill.
All skunk species are placental mammals and have a gestation (carrying) period or around 63+ days. The female raises her offspring alone, which can be anywhere between 2–9 or more kits. Male skunks are polygynous and often mate with multiple females.
The Fearful Skunk
People often fear skunks out of ignorance. It’s true; they can spray foul-smelling, oily odor called N-butyl mercaptan from anal scent glands under the tail. These animals can squirt to a range of 10ft (3m) or more. The disgusting miasma is a cocktail of chemicals that contain Sulphur, and it lingers for days. No one wants a nasal passage overwhelmed by the persistent stench of hot rotten eggs.
Moreover, a high concentration of spray is toxic and potentially fatal to people. That’s according to a published study in The Chemical Educator back in 1999. Skunk spray is also known to cause extreme coughing, gagging, and even temporary blindness. Exposure to high concentrations of N-butyl mercaptan, though, is highly unlikely.
Skunk Pre-spray warning signs
The 6 warning signs that a skunk will spray unless you retreat are:
- Aggressive stamping of the front feet
- A raised tail
- A short forward charge
- Twists its hind toward your direction
- Handstands with eyes fixed on the threat (Spotted skunks only)
Move away in a calm, quiet manner if you meet a skunk that displays any of the above behaviors. Domestic dogs are known for ignoring these warnings, so restrain your pet asap if you have one.
The Friendly Skunk
Skunks are not aggressive creatures. They certainly don’t wander around looking for someone or something to spray. They even give plenty of warnings (see previous), so it’s a last line of defense. A skunk will only squirt a human if it feels threatened. That could be if there’s no root of escape or feels it’s young are in danger. Otherwise, these easy-going creatures don’t bother anyone.
Domesticated Pet Skunks
Domesticated skunks are so friendly that they even make excellent pets. These adorable companions are lovable and non-stinky due to being de-scented. Vets de-scent male baby skunks at 3–4 months of age, and for females, it’s 4–6 months. De-scenting prevents accidental sprays in and around the home. The life expectancy of domesticated skunks goes up considerably compared to the wild animals.
Check out my related posts below on all things related to skunks.