LBL Wildlife Report: Nature's Stinky Sharpshooter, The Skunk
Skunks often earn a bad reputation akin to spiders and snakes, but these striped and spotted creatures are much more docile than their notoriety would suggest. Woodlands Nature Station's lead naturalist, John Pollpeter, speaks to Tracy Ross about these stinky sharpshooters.
Skunks' stinky natures precede them, despite the most famous skunk, Pepé Le Pew, only ever looking for love. "Those little skunks are doing the same," Pollpeter begins. "But if you've ever been sprayed or your dog has been sprayed, it's not really a fun thing to deal with."
Despite this bad rap, skunks will often only turn to spraying as a final resort. "They give you a lot of warning signs," Pollpeter explains, "particularly if you're a human. You can see it. You can react to it. Skunks have warning coloration just like venomous snakes and other animals out there that tell you that they're dangerous."
Although warning coloration is often thought of as being bright and bold yellows, oranges, and reds, skunks' warning colors are black and white. "That's what you'll see at night," Pollpeter says. "Skunks are nocturnal, so it's easier to see black and white."
In addition to their coloration, "other things that skunks do is they raise that tail and stomp their feet, sometimes very loudly. They start chittering their teeth. If you hear all those things and see that tail raise, it's a good time to step at least 30 feet away because that is meaning that they're going to go."
"Skunks have about an inch-long scent gland and about a tablespoon of smell," he continues. "They can shoot forward, backward, off to the sides, kind of a trick shooter. About 30 feet back, you get the fog -- just a slight covering."
One creature immune to skunks' stinky defense mechanisms is the Great Horned Owl, which Pollpeter says is a skunk's "number one predator. They have the capability of killing things about three times their own size. They have about 500 pounds of pressure per square inch in their talons, which is perfect for killing a skunk. They're also active at night when skunks are very visible."
Great Horned Owls' immunity to skunks' spray is due to their lack of smell. "Turkey vultures are the only birds we know of that smell," Pollpeter explains. [The owls] don't know the defense that the skunk gives off is anything to worry about. You can also be affected by the skunk's spray if you get it in the eyes, for instance, but you'd have to be pretty close."
In the United States, there are about four species of skunk. "There's the striped and the spotted, both found in Kentucky," Pollpeter says. "Spotted is found in Appalachia. There's the hooded and the hog-nosed, which are desert-dwelling species that you'll find in the Southwest. Otherwise, the striped skunk is the dominant skunk you're going to find in most of North America."
In Land Between the Lakes specifically, there is a wide variety of striped skunks due to generations of interbreeding. "In the Land Between the Lakes area, they're extremely surrounded by water. Skunks don't really get off the peninsula that often to do a genetic exchange. You see all sorts of genetic variants," Pollpeter says, including all-white, all-black, and even pink skunks.
While their spray attacks seem rather aggressive to the sprayed, Pollpeter says skunks are actually incredibly calm animals. "It's not one you'd obviously want to pet or get close to in the wild. I've come across skunks that are really calm and don't mind you watching them and enjoying them, and I've come across skunks that are more touchy -- just like humans."
This docility doesn't mean they're ready for domestication, however. "People have tried to make them into pets, and they can be de-scented. The big issue when it comes to skunks is some of the diseases that can transfer from animals to humans. We're not really sure how well the vaccinations work on that. It's not recommended by a lot of vets and states to have them as pets. A lot of states in our area don't allow you to have skunks as pets because you can't ever be guaranteed that the vaccination was going to hold if you did get bit."
Pollpeter says some of the best areas to see a skunk in Land Between the Lakes is at the campgrounds. But don't be fooled by Pepé Le Pew's constant quest for love; these critters prefer a wide berth -- at least 30 feet or so.