What A Florida Skunk Ape Isn’t… Continued.
- Published: March 7, 2010
- Featured Story, Skunk Ape Articles, Skunk Ape Theory
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In our previous post, “What A Florida Skunk Ape Isn’t”, we have already discerned that Florida Skunk Ape is not an ape! At least, it appears, that it is not an ape. Now we examine why it is not a skunk! While we are still not sure what it is, we do know what it is not.
Skunks are mammals best known for their ability to secrete a liquid with a strong, foul-smelling odor. General appearance ranges from species to species, from black-and-white to brown or cream colored. Skunks belong to the family Mephitidae and to the order Carnivora. There are 10 species of skunks, which are divided into four genera: Mephitis (hooded and striped skunks, two species), Spilogale (spotted skunks, two species), Mydaus (stink badgers, two species), and Conepatus (hog-nosed skunks, four species). The two skunk species in the Mydaus genus inhabit Indonesia and the Philippines; all other skunks inhabit the Americas from Canada to central South America.
Skunks were formerly classified as a subfamily within the family Mustelidae, which includes ferrets, weasels, otters, badgers, and relatives. However, recent genetic evidence suggests that the skunks are not as closely related to the mustelids as previously thought; they are now classified in their own family.
Skunk species vary in size from about 15.6 to 37 inches (40 to 94 cm) and in weight from about 1.1 pounds (0.50 kg) (the spotted skunks) to 18 pounds (8.2 kg) (the hog-nosed skunks). They have a moderately elongated body with relatively short, well-muscled legs, and long front claws for digging.
Although the most common fur color is black and white, some skunks are brown or gray, and a few are cream-colored. All skunks are striped, even from birth. They may have a single thick stripe across back and tail, two thinner stripes, or a series of white spots and broken stripes (in the case of the spotted skunk). Some also have stripes on their legs.
Skunks are omnivorous, eating both plant and animal material and changing their diet as the seasons change. They eat insects and larvae, earthworms, small rodents, lizards, salamanders, frogs, snakes, birds, moles, and eggs. They also commonly eat berries, roots, leaves, grasses, fungi, and nuts.
In settled areas, skunks also seek human garbage. Less often, skunks may be found acting as scavengers, eating bird and rodent carcasses left by cats or other animals. Pet owners, particularly those of cats, may experience a skunk finding its way into a garage or basement where pet food is kept. Skunks commonly dig holes in lawns in search of grubs and worms.
Skunks are one of the primary predators of the honeybee, relying on their thick fur to protect them from stings. The skunk scratches at the front of the beehive and eats the guard bees that come out to investigate. Mother skunks are known to teach this to their young.
Skunks are crepuscular and are solitary animals when not breeding, though in the colder parts of their range they may gather in communal dens for warmth. During the day, they shelter in burrows that they dig with their powerful front claws, or in other man-made or natural hollows as the opportunity arises. Both genders occupy overlapping home ranges through the greater part of the year; typically 2 to 4 square kilometres (0.77 to 1.5 sq mi) for females, up to 20 square kilometres (7.7 sq mi) for males.
Skunks are not true hibernators in the winter, but do den up for extended periods of time. However, they remain generally inactive and feed rarely, going through a dormant stage. They often overwinter in a huddle of multiple (as many as twelve) females. Males often den alone. The same winter den is often repeatedly used.
Although they have excellent senses of smell and hearing—vital attributes in a crepuscular omnivore—they have poor vision. They cannot see objects more than about 3 metres (10 ft) away with any clarity, which makes them vulnerable to road traffic. They are short-lived animals: Fewer than 10% survive for longer than three years.
Skunks typically mate in early spring and are a polygynous species, meaning that (successful) males usually mate with more than one female. Before giving birth (usually in May), the female will excavate a den to house her litter of four to seven kits. They are placental, with a gestation period of about 66 days.
When born, skunk kits are blind, deaf, and covered in a soft layer of fur. About three weeks after birth, their eyes open. The kits are weaned about two months after birth, but generally stay with their mother until they are ready to mate, at about one year of age.
The mother is very protective of her kits and will often spray at any sign of danger. The male plays no part in raising the young and may even kill them.
Anal scent glands
The most notorious feature of skunks is their anal scent glands, which they can use as a defensive weapon. They are similar to, though much more developed than, the glands found in species of the Mustelidae family. Skunks have two glands, one on either side of the anus. These glands produce a mixture of sulfur-containing chemicals (methyl and butyl thiols (mercaptans)), which have a highly offensive smell that can be described as a combination of the odors of rotten eggs, garlic and burnt rubber. The odor of the fluid is strong enough to ward off bears and other potential attackers and can be difficult to remove from clothing. Muscles located next to the scent glands allow them to spray with a high degree of accuracy, as far as 2 to 5 meters (7 to 15 ft). The smell aside, the spray can cause irritation and even temporary blindness and is sufficiently powerful to be detected by even an insensitive human nose anywhere up to a mile downwind. Their chemical defense, though unusual, is effective, as illustrated by this extract from Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle:
We saw also a couple of Zorrillos, or skunks—odious animals, which are far from uncommon. In general appearance the Zorrillo resembles a polecat, but it is rather larger, and much thicker in proportion. Conscious of its power, it roams by day about the open plain, and fears neither dog nor man. If a dog is urged to the attack, its courage is instantly checked by a few drops of the fetid oil, which brings on violent sickness and running at the nose. Whatever is once polluted by it, is for ever useless. Azara says the smell can be perceived at a league distant; more than once, when entering the harbour of Monte Video, the wind being off shore, we have perceived the odour on board the Beagle. Certain it is, that every animal most willingly makes room for the Zorrillo.
Skunks are reluctant to use their smelly weapon, as they carry just enough of the chemical for five or six uses—about 15 cc—and require some ten days to produce another supply. Their bold black and white coloring however serves to make the skunk’s appearance memorable. Where practical, it is to a skunk’s advantage simply to warn a threatening creature off without expending scent: Black and white warning color aside, threatened skunks will go through an elaborate routine of hisses, foot stamping, and tail-high threat postures before resorting to the spray. Interestingly, skunks usually do not spray other skunks (with the exception of males in the mating season); though they fight over den space in autumn, they do so with tooth and claw.
The singular musk-spraying ability of the skunk has not escaped the attention of biologists: The names of the family and the most common genus (Mephitidae, Mephitis) mean “stench,” and Spilogale putorius means “stinking spotted weasel.” The word skunk is a corruption of an Abenaki name for them, segongw or segonku, which means “one who squirts” in the Algonquian dialect.
Most predatory animals of the Americas, such as wolves, foxes and badgers, seldom attack skunks—presumably out of fear of being sprayed. The exception is the great horned owl, the animal’s only serious predator, which, like most birds, has a poor-to-nonexistent sense of smell.
Skunks are common in suburban areas, and frequent encounters with dogs and other domestic animals, and the release of the odor when a skunk is run over, lead to many myths about the removal of the skunk odor. Due to the chemical composition of the skunk spray, most of these household remedies are ineffective, with the exception of a peroxide formula or other remedies that break down the thiols.
Skunk spray is composed mainly of low molecular weight thiol compounds, namely (E)-2-butene-1-thiol, 3-methyl-1-butanethiol, and 2-quinolinemethanethiol, as well as acetate thioesters of each of these. These compounds are detectable at concentrations of about 10 parts per billion.
For more information on skunks, start here.