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(Ready - Aim - Fire) Skunks: Nature's Sharpshooters

Feb. 13, 2011 at 10:01 p.m.
Updated Feb. 12, 2011 at 8:13 p.m.

A striped skunk near Knickerbocker, Texas. Skunks are normally shy, but come out more during mating season.

A striped skunk near Knickerbocker, Texas. Skunks are normally shy, but come out more during mating season.

By Judie Farnsworth

Skunk. We are all familiar with this small, distinctively colored mammal and its unique form of defense. The intensely foul odor of its spray is very effective and certainly memorable. Some of our pets can attest to that.

There are five species of skunks found in the USA: striped, Eastern spotted, Western spotted, hog-nosed and hooded. All can be found in parts of Texas. Most active at night and usually solitary, skunks eat a wide variety of foods. They dig burrows or shelter in man-made or natural hollows.

Although not true hibernators, skunks may be inactive in times of difficult weather. Females may huddle in numbers. Males den singly.

Skunks have poor vision, but their sense of hearing is excellent, as is their sense of smell. This may have drawbacks. It seems they can't stand their own odor. Interestingly, skunks usually don't spray other skunks; they use claws and teeth to settle disputes.

What makes skunk spray so repulsive? Keeping it simple, think sulfur. Sulfurous compounds called thiols combine, forming the odorous fluid which is called mercaptan. This particular mixture has the added quality of bonding. That's why funky, skunky odors are so persistent. Even trace amounts are difficult to remove.

Thiols are what make chopped onions unpleasant. They're put into natural gas, which is odorless by itself, to help identify leaks.

The next time you reach for your cologne, ponder this; the same chemicals which make skunk spray stick are used in perfumes and cosmetics for lasting scent - minus the thiols.

Skunks are, by nature, non-aggressive. Contrary to the loveable Pepe' Le Pew cartoons, they don't ooze foul smells. When they feel threatened, they normally warn with an impressive display of hissing, foot stamping and raising their tails. Not wanting to waste mercaptan, they spray as a last resort.

The mercaptan is held in two scent glands near the base of their tails, surrounded by muscle tissue. There's about a tablespoon of the foul, oily, yellow fluid - enough for five or six sprays. Once used, it takes about 10 days to replenish. Baby skunks are able to spray at about eight days old.

Striped skunks twist their body into a U-shape prior to spraying. Both head and tail face the target. Hooded skunks turn their tail to the target scooting backward as they spray. Spotted skunks do a handstand and fire directly over their head. A skunk can spray either a mist or jet 10 to 15 feet with amazing accuracy. The spray can cause pain and temporary blindness. The smell may carry downwind for a mile.

The skunk's only predator of note is the great horned owl which seems impervious to the odor. Killing a skunk will cause mercaptan to release, as muscles relax in death.

In the wild, fewer than 10 percent of skunks survive longer than three years. Captive skunks may live 10 years.

Animals having unfortunate encounters with skunks will be forever cautious. Oh.. and they may just glow in the dark. Did you know skunk spray is phosphorescent?

Judie Farnsworth is a long time volunteer at the Texas Zoo specializing in educational programs.

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