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Striped Skunk
(Mephitis mephitis Schreber)

From: Saunders, D. A. 1988. Adirondack Mammals. State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry. 216pp.

Order: Carnivora

Family: Mephitidae

Description: The striped skunk is stout-bodied with short legs and a long, bushy, coarsely-furred tail. The head is broad at the base with short, tapered muzzle and short, rounded ears. The eyes are small and black. The five toes of each foot have strong claws with those of the front feet longer and curved. A narrow stripe along the forehead and muzzle is white. The top of the head and nape are white, the white continuing along each side as a narrow to broad stripe. In some individuals these stripes extend along the sides of the tail while in others only the tip of the tail is white. The rest of the tail is a mixture of black and white, a result of the white bases of the long black hairs. The remaining parts of the head and body are black. The relative amount of white varies among individuals producing color phases from near all black to predominantly white. Adults are 54-67 cm (21-26 in) in length which includes the 18-29 cm (7-11 in) tail, and weigh 1.1-5.5 kg (2.4-12.1 lb). Females are slightly smaller than males.

Range and Habitat: The striped skunk occurs from the southern half of Canada to northern Mexico except for parts of the Southwest. While its current distribution and relative abundance in the Adirondack Park are not well known, Merriam's remarks that the striped skunk "is very common in the clearings and settled districts bordering this region, and is found, sparingly, throughout the Adirondacks" (p 69) appears as true today as it was a century ago. Possibly, the striped skunk is less abundant now then during Merriam's time because of the abandonment of farms and the maturation of many forest areas. Today, this species is most abundant in the lower valleys of the southern and eastern Adirondacks, but is present in central and northern areas where it is usually found in and aroundvillages and towns such as Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake, and Lake Placid. The striped skunk prefers agricultural lands, wooded farmlands, pastures, forest clearings, and areas around human habitations both rural and urban. The striped skunk may occasionally reside in dense forest and at elevations of a least 659 m (2160 ft).

Underground dens in well-drained sites which the striped skunk either excavates or, more often, uses after they have been abandoned by other mammals such as woodchuck or foxes, serves as homes. Dens may have one to several openings to the surface, each about 20 cm (8 in) in diameter, and may extend underground for distances up to 15 m (50 ft). A striped skunk may push or pull dried leaves or grasses for bedding material into a den which in winter may extend a meter (3 ft) or more in depth. Striped skunks tend to use dens in autumn and winter and for raising their young, but in spring and summer bed above ground in thick vegetation or within or around other cover. Skunks also live in piles of wood, rock or refuse and buildings, for example, spaces beneath barns and houses or even within the walls or attics of these structures.

Food and Feeding Behavior: The striped skunk is an opportunistic omnivore and eats both plant and animal foods. Insects of many species make up most of the diet than any other type of food. The larvae of moths and butterflies, beetles and their grubs, grasshoppers and crickets are favorites, and striped skunks consume great quantities of these and other invertebrates during the warm months of the year. Various fruits, berries, and seeds such as blueberries and black cherries form a part of the summer and autumn diet. Small mammals and especially their young, the nestlings and eggs of ground nesting birds, turtle eggs, small reptiles and amphibians, and carrion are lesser dietary components. The striped skunk relies on its well-developed sense of vision, hearing, and smell to locate food. Skunks use the long, sharp claws of the forefeet to pry apart rotting logs to obtain beetle grubs or to excavate insects from the soil, or even to pounce on and pin down active prey. The practice of digging up insects from the ground creates small conical pits, evidence of recent foraging.

Activity and Movement: Striped skunks are strong swimmers but rarely enter water. Their terrestrial movement, which normally occurs from sunset to dawn, is a slow amble or waddle, although a skunk can move quickly by galloping for short distances at a speed of about 16.5 km/h (10 mph). Skunks avoid the coldest temperatures of winter by remaining in their dens, often for weeks or even months at a time. During this inactive phase, a skunk depends on fat reserves for energy and by spring may lose 15-40 percent of its autumn weight.

Reproduction: Striped skunks mate from mid-February to mid-April. Females bear 3-10 (average 5 or 6) young, 59-77 days later. The newborn have some hair, but their skin is mainly pink with a faint trace of the black and white pattern that develops at a later age. At birth, the young weigh approximately 33 g (1.2 oz) and are blind. Their eyes open between 21-28 days, which is about the same age young skunks are capable or orienting the discharge of their anal scent glands towards an intruder. Weaning is from 42-56 days, after which the young accompany the female on her nightly trips. The young disperse at 2.5 months of age, and are sexually mature the following spring. Striped skunks may live 10 years in captivity, although very few wild skunks survive 6 years.

Predators: Striped skunks are well known for their ability to defend themselves by discharging a fine mist or stream of droplets of musk (butylmercaptan) which is an extreme eye irritant but causes no permanent damage. Both sexes posses the paired anal glands which produce the musk, and both are capable of discharging the malodorous substance 5 or 6 times in rapid succession, striking objects up to distance of about 5-6 m (18-20 ft).

The striped skunk has few enemies because of this defense. However, large birds of prey such as great horned owls, golden and bald eagles are known to prey upon this species, and perhaps, are tolerant of the skunk's musk although even they may, at times, be put off. Coyotes, bobcats, and foxes are well known to kill and eat skunk, but presumable do so only when starving.

The striped skunk seems to be particularly vulnerable to rabies, and in New York, is second only to the red fox in the rate of infection with this disease. Rabid skunks tend to be diurnal in their habits, and can be very aggressive. They occasionally attack other animals such as livestock, pets, and man.

Social Behavior:

  • Social System - Striped skunks are solitary mammals except when mating, raising young, and in winter when a male and one or more females, or several females share a den. Adults do not form pair bonds; males associate briefly with a female when mating but do not exhibit any parental behavior. Sex, age, season, and the availability of food and dens are some determinants of home range size. Males travel long distances during the breeding season when searching for mates, and have larger home ranges because of this behavior. Home ranges vary from 0.02-511.2 ha (0.05-1279 ac). Home ranges may overlap. Densities within suitable habitat in some parts of the geographic range are 2-50 striped skunks per 256 ha (1 sq mi).
  • Communication - Striped skunks hiss, screech, churr, growl, twitter, and make a cooing sound in social encounters or when alarmed. Foot stamping and backward shuffling are motor patterns associated with threat. Striped skunks do not spray each other in aggressive interactions, but substances from other glands play a likely role in their behavior.

Additional References

Fuller, T.K. and D.W. Kuehn. 1985. Population characteristics of striped skunks in northcentral Minnesota. Journal of Mammalogy, 66:813-815.

Hamilton, W.J., Jr. 1963. Reproduction of the striped skunk in New York. Journal of Mammalogy, 44:123-124.

Houseknecht, C.T. and J.R. Tester. 1978. Dening habits of striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis). American Midland Naturalist, 100:424-430.

Strom, G.L. 1972. Daytime retreats and movements of skunks on farmlands in Illinois. Journal of Wildlife Management, 36:31-45.

Verts, B.J. 1967. The biology of the striped skunk. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 218pp.

Wade-Smith, J. and B.J.Verts. 1982. Mephitis mephitis. Mammalian Species, 173:1-7.


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