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8 Fascinating Skunk Species

Skunks are known for their distinctive black and white coloring and pungent sulfuric spray. While those traits are fairly standard across the family Mephitidae, the 12 species of mephitids can vary greatly — even in appearance. They are divided into four genera: Conepatus (hog-nosed skunks), Mephitis (skunks), Spilogale (spotted skunks), and Mydaus (stink badgers), although stink badgers are technically classified as true badgers. Skunks are mostly present throughout the Western Hemisphere only and prefer a range of habitats, from forest edges to woodlands, grasslands, and deserts.

These eight types of skunk demonstrate the largely misunderstood animal’s vast interspecies variation.

Hooded Skunk

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Though the hooded skunk (Mephitis macroura, belonging to the genera Mephitis) looks similar to the more widely distributed striped skunk, it can be told apart by its ruff — hence the “hood” in its name — made of long hairs on the back of its head and neck. It is the most abundant species in Oaxaca, Mexico, and can be found all around the southwestern U.S. and Central America. It’s also slightly smaller than the striped skunk, ranging from 20 to 30 inches in length compared with the latter’s 25- to 50-inch length.

Eastern Spotted Skunk

Skunks are famous for the thick, white stripe most have along their backs, but some species bear spots instead. The eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius) — belonging to the genera Spilogale — is one such skunk variety. In addition to their namesake markings, these skunks, found in the eastern U.S., differ from striped skunks in that they lift themselves into an impressive handstand position before they spray.

American Hog-Nosed Skunk

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Native to southern North America and northern Central America, the American hog-nosed skunk (Conepatus leuconotus) is the most widely distributed of the four species in the Conepatus genera, found from Texas to Nicaragua. It’s the only hog-nosed skunk with a broad, white stripe down its back and the only skunk that lacks a white dot or medial bar between its eyes.

Humboldt’s Hog-Nosed Skunk

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Also known as the Patagonian hog-nosed skunk because it’s indigenous to the Patagonian grasslands of South America, Humboldt’s hog-nosed skunk (Conepatus humboldtii) of the Conepatus genera can be brown instead of black and has one or two symmetric stripes down its back. Because of this, Humboldt’s hog-nosed skunk was highly coveted for its pelt in the 1960s and ’70s. It’s now protected, but still used in the pet trade.

Striped Skunk

The striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis), belonging to the the genera Mephitis, is likely the species that first comes to mind when you think about a black-and-white, spraying mammal. It’s the one that occurs most from Mexico to Canada and is commonly spotted as it adapts well to human-modified environments. In addition to being the most abundant, the striped skunk is also the largest, sometimes growing up to 32 inches long.

Molina’s Hog-Nosed Skunk

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Molina’s hog-nosed skunk (Conepatus chinga) can be found from Chile to Brazil throughout mid- and southern South America, where pit vipers — a common predator — also live. Because of this, the skunk species has developed a resistance to their venom. They can be told apart from other skunks by their thin white stripes and like others in the genera Conepatus, they have elongated, fleshy noses used for locating rodents, small reptiles, and eggs.

Pygmy Spotted Skunk

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The pygmy spotted skunk (Spilogale pygmaea) — endemic to Mexico and belonging to the genera Spilogale— is the smallest of all skunk species, growing to be only 7 to 18 inches in length, and also the most carnivorous, living on spiders, birds, reptiles, small mammals, and eggs. It is listed on the IUCN Red List as a vulnerable species. Its decreasing population is a result of residential and commercial development, hunting and trapping, and disease.

Striped Hog-Nosed Skunk

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The striped hog-nosed skunk (Conepatus semistriatus), of the genera Conepatus, is a generalist species, meaning it can use different resources to thrive in a wide variety of environmental conditions. Though technically considered neotropical, it can survive in dry forest scrub and rainforest alike, from Mexico to Peru. It does, however, tend to avoid hot desert environments.

All skunks spray, but besides that one defining feature, species of skunk can vary quite a bit. These eight showcase the diversity of mephitids.

Skunk

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  • skunk – Children’s Encyclopedia (Ages 8-11)
  • skunk – Student Encyclopedia (Ages 11 and up)

Skunk, (family Mephitidae), also called polecat, black-and-white mammal, found primarily in the Western Hemisphere, that uses extremely well-developed scent glands to release a noxious odour in defense. The term skunk, however, refers to more than just the well-known striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis). The skunk family is composed of 11 species, 9 of which are found in the Western Hemisphere. Primarily nocturnal, skunks are diverse carnivores that live in a wide variety of habitats, including deserts, forests, and mountains. Most are about the size of a housecat, but some are significantly smaller.

The common striped skunk is found from central Canada southward throughout the United States to northern Mexico. Its fur is typically black with a white “V” down the back, and it has a white bar between the eyes, as does the rare hooded skunk (M. macroura) of the southwestern United States. In the hooded skunk stripes are not always present, and white areas on the back are interspersed with black fur, which gives it a gray appearance. The “hood” is the result of long hairs at the back of the neck.

Spotted skunks (genus Spilogale) live from southwestern Canada to Costa Rica. Except for a white spot between the eyes, their spots are actually a series of interrupted stripes running down the back and sides. These are about the size of a tree squirrel and are the smallest skunks except for the pygmy spotted skunk (S. pygmaea), which can fit in a person’s hand.

The hog-nosed skunks (genus Conepatus) of North America can be larger than striped skunks, but those of Chile and Argentina are smaller. In the northern part of their range, they have a single solid white stripe starting at the top of the head that covers the tail and back. In Central and South America they have the typical “V” pattern. Hog-nosed skunks have no markings between the eyes.

In the 1990s stink badgers (genus Mydaus; see badger) became classified as members of the family Mephitidae, and they thus are now considered skunks. Found only in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, they resemble small North American hog-nosed skunks with shorter tails. Their white stripes can be divided, single and narrow, or absent.

Scent

Skunk scent comes from anal glands located inside the rectum at the base of the tail. All carnivores have anal scent glands, but they are extremely well-developed in skunks. Each of the two glands has a nipple associated with it, and skunks can aim the spray with highly coordinated muscle control. When a skunk is being chased by a predator but cannot see it, the spray is emitted as an atomized cloud that the pursuer must run through. This usually is enough to deter most predators. When the skunk has a target to focus on, the spray is emitted as a stream directed at the predator’s face. Although accurate to about two metres (more than six feet), its total range is considerably farther.

A skunk will go through a series of threat behaviours before it sprays. Striped and hooded skunks will face an adversary head-on and stamp their front paws, sometimes charging forward a few paces or edging backward while dragging their front paws. When they actually spray, they can simultaneously face their head and tail at the antagonist. Hog-nosed skunks stand up on their hind paws and slam their front paws to the ground while hissing loudly. Spotted skunks perform a handstand and approach predators. Stink badgers snarl, show their teeth, and stamp their forefeet. They also have been observed to feign death, with the anal area directed at the observer. The chemical composition of skunk spray differs among species, but sulfur compounds (thiols and thioacetates) are primarily responsible for its strength.

Skunk, black-and-white mammal, found primarily in the Western Hemisphere, that uses extremely well-developed scent glands to release a noxious odor in defense. Primarily nocturnal, skunks are diverse carnivores that live in a wide variety of habitats, including deserts, forests, and mountains.