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Skunk Power: The Little ins and Big Outs of This Powerful Creature

written by: Andrea Campbell • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 2/23/2015

Your assignment, should you choose it, is to find out more about that horrible, mysterious smell. Most likely it is from the shy and somewhat reticent skunk. Is the skunk a maligned creature? Is it harmful or just plain evil? Let’s see where research takes us.

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    Background on Subject Skunk

    All About Skunks: Science Homework Help The scientific name for the Striped Skunk is Mephitis mephitis. In Latin this means, “noxious vapor"—well named indeed. While the skunk may not like to admit it, he is family to the weasel, another family of carnivores (those who eat flesh as well as other animals).

    In addition, skunks are mammals like us. They breathe air, give birth to live young and are warm-blooded—their body temperature stays about the same no matter the temperature change. Skunks are mainly nocturnal, so they move around mostly at night.

    There are four types of skunks: the commonly seen striped skunk; the hooded skunk with a big swath of white down its back like a mohawk; spotted skunks are the smallest weighing about 32 ounces and boasting white spots on their fur instead of stripes; and the hog-nosed skunk, with a snout like a pig.

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    Be on the Lookout

    Their territory is vast. You can find them in North and South America, Central America and even some parts of Asia. You will find them in fields, forests and wherever they are most likely to find food.

    We know that if there is sustenance, they will stick around and, if not, they may travel as much as 12 city blocks.

    Mainly though, they hang out in dens. They often dig and burrow underground but they may also occupy someone else’s den. There will generally be a back door and a trail of grasses or leaves might lead you there, as they are likely to have their nest real cozy.

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    Assets

    Skunks hear and smell very well but they are short on eyesight, usually seeing things closer than far away. They have sharp teeth and long curled claws to dig those trenches. Their fur is somewhat funny; it’s long on the outside and crinkled underneath to keep them warm. (We doubt you want to get close enough to see it, so take our word for it.)

    They move rather slowly, kind of in a waddle, but don’t think they can’t run with those short legs. Their first instinct is to outrun their enemies! They are good tree climbers and will swim, but only if they have to.

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    Their Prey

    Skunks can be found feasting on lizards, mice and both animals and plant alike. They will make a sort of salad out of vegetables, grass and even cactus. If they dump over your garbage can, expect a tossed salad mess.

    Insects such as grasshoppers, crickets, ants and earwigs are also on their diet. They have been known to eat carrion (road kill), and even poisonous snakes! Wow, they sure are sure of themselves. In the spring, they will go after birds, their eggs and their hatchling eggs.

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    The Arsenal

    Okay, here is the threat that they carry with them: the stink bomb. Skunks have a strong potent oil called a musk that they can emit at will. It is held in two handy pouches—called glands—on either side of their anus. The ends of the glands look like tiny hoses. Uh-huh, hoses.

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    The Threat Dance

    One decent thing though, is the skunk does a kind of war dance before he lets go his powerful musk weapon. He will:

    • Stomp his feet
    • Arch his back
    • Paw the ground
    • Hiss, and clack his teeth
    • Raise his tail
    • Stand on front paws and then…

    …the skunk carves his body into a U-shape—where both head and tail can challenge his foe. Skunk will aim for the enemies’ face and the spray can go about fifteen feet (4.5 meters). The yellowy odoriferous oil can be sprayed in a straight stream or in a mist. He is actually squeezing his hip muscles to force the glands to expel the musk, something he has no problem doing.

    Generally, the spray is reserved for these enemies: the dogs, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, badgers and birds of prey like owls and eagles. Be aware, a skunk will spray when they feel afraid or threatened.

    The skunky fluid stings the eyes, burns the skin and is just generally terrible to get rid of—it lasts and lasts—better to stay away, so caution.

    The secretion is a yellow oil that sticks to most surfaces. The spray contains up to seven compounds called thiols or thioacetates, which bind quickly and powerfully to the skin. Water makes these compounds even more pungent.

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    Little Known Facts

    • Thiols are so powerful that the human nose can detect them at about one part per billion in surrounding air.
    • The smell can carry up to a mile (1.6 km).
    • The musk glands produce only about a tablespoon of musk at a time.
    • After being de-scented, skunks have been used as pets (we do not recommend).
    • Scientists have found a use for the smell, to help detect natural gas leaks.
    • The musk from a skunk or a civet cat really acts as a constituent that can carry the scent of a perfume.

    So our skunk creature is not evil, he’s just looking to escape the car accident and trying to live longer than his expected life span.

References

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