Skunks belong to the weasel family (Mustelidae),
which also contains badgers, weasels,
and otters. They form three mustelid genera found
in southern Canada, throughout the United States,
in Mexico, and in Central America.
The average skunk is sturdily built
and cat-sized. It has a long, pointed
nose or a hoglike nose, an arched
back, and short legs. Skunk fur is
long, soft, shiny, and black with
wide, white stripes down the back.
Stripe patterns differ among skunk
species. Many skunks also have
white forehead patches. Skunk tails
are long, bushy, and usually black
on top and white underneath.
Skunks live in hollow trees, burrows,
or under sheds when dwelling
among humans. They eat insects,
mice, gophers, reptiles,
squirrels, birds, and eggs. They
help farmers by killing other animals
that eat or prey upon agricultural
products. Skunks are best
known for their vile-smelling musk, originating
in perineal glands on either side of the anus.When
frightened, a skunk squirts out this fluid with considerable
force. The musk's vile odor usually
keeps enemies away. Ahuman or animal sprayed
with the fluid smells bad for weeks. For this reason,
most people and animals learn not to attack
skunks. One predator of skunks is the great
horned owl, unaffected by the musk.
Physical Characteristics of Skunks
Striped or common skunks live in small groups in underground dens in pastures, meadows, and fields. They eat insects, gophers, reptiles, squirrels, birds, grubs, and eggs. These skunks are nocturnal hunters. They either dig their own dens or use those vacated by other animals. Striped skunks are the largest skunks, reaching body-totail lengths of 3.5 feet and weights of five pounds. Their coats are glossy and black, with two wide, white stripes running from head top to tail tip. They spray musk in self-defense up to 6.5 feet. The musk hurts the eyes of predators and its vile odor lingers for many days. Another type of skunk is the hog-nosed skunk. There are seven hog-nosed skunk species. They differ in habitat from striped skunks, living in rocky areas and inhabiting rocky crevices. They have sharp claws for digging hard, rocky soil. Hog-nosed skunks are two feet long from nose to tail tip and weigh about 3.5 pounds. Their glossy black coats have a white head-to-tail stripe. Unlike other skunks, they lack white stripes down the middle of the face and their tails are all white. Their long, bare snouts look like pig snouts, hence the name. Hog-nosed skunks are nocturnal and eat the same food as striped skunks. Spotted skunks differ from striped and hognosed varieties in having four to six broken stripes or spots in different patterns on body and tail. Some dig burrows; others live in rock crevices. They are much smaller than other skunks, being only 1.25 feet long from nose to tail tip and weighing only one pound. Spotted skunks are like other skunks in nocturnal predation and diet.
The Life Cycle of Skunks
Striped and hog-nosed skunks mate during February and March in dens lined with grass and leaves. Males do not help raise young and live alone during the summer. Gestation lasts 2 to 3.5 months and a female gives birth to between two and ten babies, depending on species. The babies initially weigh about an ounce and can spray musk before they can walk. They are nursed for 1.5 months and then follow their mother around, learning to hunt. At six months old, they strike off on their own. These skunks can mate when they are eleven months old, and can live for six to seven years in the wild and ten years in captivity. Mating of eastern, southern, and pygmy spotted skunks occurs in the usual February to March period, but gestation is only five weeks. In contrast, western spotted skunks mate in the late summer. Females of all four spotted skunk species give birth to two to six babies. Nursing and life spans are the same as for hog-nosed and striped skunks.
Skunk Fur and Skunk Pets
Wild skunks produce a valuable fur, but skunk farming is not profitable because of the low prices paid for each small pelt. However, skunk fur is beautiful. Coats made of this fur were once sold as "black marten", but are now sold under their real name due to Federal regulations. Buyers like skunk fur for its appearance and durability compared to most other furs. Skunks, often "destunk" by surgical removal of perineal glands, have some popularity as pets because they are attractive, friendly, and cat-sized.
Genus and species: Three genera and thirteen species, including Mephitis mephitis (striped skunk); Spilogale angustifrons (southern spotted skunk), S. gracilis (western spotted skunk), S. putorius (eastern spotted skunk), S. pygmaea (pygmy spotted skunk)
Geographical location: The United States, Mexico, southern Canada, and Central America
Habitat: Rocky crevices or hollow trees; may live in the suburbs, where they make dens in burrows or under buildings or sheds
Gestational period: Two to seven months
Life span:Upto seven years in the wild, ten years in captivity
Special anatomy: Musk-secreting perineal glands; long, very bushy tails
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