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BULLETnature archive
Nature Archive Photo
© Bruce D. Taubert

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Reeking Havoc
When asked to work on this story, our writer said, "This assignment stinks." And she had a point. Although skunks aren't very big, they pack a malodorous punch.

By Allison Oswalt

If you've ever been on a road trip, chances are you've smelled a dead skunk in the middle of the road, and more than likely, you thought, Man, if I can smell that stink inside the car, imagine if I actually got sprayed.

Indeed, you'd smell like … a skunk. Thus the mammal's fetid reputation.

A skunk's main defense against predators — mostly horned owls, coyotes and domestic dogs — is a complex chemical substance that includes sulfuric acid. It can be fired from one of two glands, and the targets can be humans, which pose the largest threat to skunks.

Whether out of fear or by accident, human beings kill large numbers of skunks every year. Many are killed on roadways, to the point of being wiped out entirely from areas with a lot of traffic, while some are hunted for their fine, silky fur.

That fur is usually black and white, but the coats also come in gray, brown and cream colors. The fur coloring varies, but a thick bold stripe is a trademark insignia for all varieties of skunks, which are members of the weasel family. On average, skunks vary in size from about 15.6 inches to 37 inches long and can weigh 1 pound to 18 pounds. They're about the size of a house cat.

But unlike Garfield, skunks are true omnivores, consuming insects, rodents, frogs and wild fruit and berries, most of which they find while scavenging at night. Primarily nocturnal, these animals prefer to forage on their own, but occasionally you will see mothers roaming with their young.

Kits, as baby skunks are called, are born in litters of four to seven. They're born hairless with closed eyes and ears and look a little like miniature seals. During the colder months, skunks will hole up in their dens for extended periods of time, staying dormant until the weather warms up. Hollow logs, abandoned buildings and burrows can serve as a skunk's home for multiple winters.

Striped skunks appear throughout the United States and southern Canada. And although malodorous, they can actually be beneficial to humans, particularly farmers. The striped stinkers eat grasshoppers, caterpillars and other pests that can damage or destroy crops.

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