When most people think of “skunk,” they picture the notorious striped skunk, a species that we examined in a previous Misunderstood Meso piece. However, another variety of skunk inhabits most of the same range as their more popular cousin yet is less understood and rarely seen. The spotted skunks of North America hold an equally beneficial ecological role as their counterpart but face a different list of threats to their existence. Spotted skunk behavior, ecology, and habitat are all lesser known than striped skunk qualities, making their genus the truly most misunderstood skunks in North America.
Unlike the solitary species of striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) in North America, spotted skunks are divided into four distinct species. All species of spotted skunk resemble a weasel-type of slender body shape, contrary to the wide, stout bodies of striped skunks. Additionally, the color pattern of spotted skunks is different from striped skunks. An irregular series of horizontal and vertical thin white stripes separated by black streaking makes the mustelid appear spotted. All spotted skunk species appear similar with this infamous, white-spotted coloration that warns predators of their volatile defenses.
The Eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius) inhabits most of the Midwest plains and the southeastern United States, extending from the continental divide in the West to the Appalachian Mountains in the East. Populations in the northern plain states expand northward to around the Canadian border, while in the South the species is common along the Gulf of Mexico and Florida. Eastern spotted skunks likely inhabited the Northeastern US historically but now only extend into the mountains of Pennsylvania at their farthest northeast reach.
The Western spotted skunk (Spilogale gracilis) lives throughout the US West from the continental divide to the west coast. Populations extend north into Southern British Columbia and south into Baja California and northern Mexico. The species also inhabits some islands off the west coast and is divided into seven subspecies according to geographic location.
Once believed to be a subspecies of the eastern spotted skunk, the Southern spotted skunk (Spilogale angustifrons) is considered a genuine distinct species because of chromosomal differences with other known skunk species. Living the furthest south of all spotted skunk species, this southern variety inhabits most of Central America, extending from Southern Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula down to Costa Rica. Due to their secretive nature and fragmented populations, not much is known about this species.
The most petite species of all skunks, the pygmy spotted skunk (Spilogale pygmaea) lives in a confined region along the Pacific coast of Mexico. Only reaching an average length of around 7-8 inches and weighing 6-10 ounces, the pygmy spotted skunk is considered the most threatened of all spotted skunk species due to extensive habitat destruction within its range. In 2015, the IUNC listed pygmy spotted skunks as Vulnerable.
Despite sharing a similar climate, Eastern and Western spotted skunks maintain vastly different reproductive cycles. Eastern spotted skunks mate in early spring and give birth to 4-5 kits in May, while the western species mate in autumn. The embryos then remain dormant as blastocysts until April when uterine implantation takes place. Finally, 2-5 kits are born in May.
Like Western spotted skunks, pygmy spotted skunks mate in autumn and keep their embryos dormant until next spring, giving birth in March or April. However, the pygmy species can produce up to ten offspring, the most among all spotted skunks. Little is known about southern spotted skunk reproduction due to the difficulties of studying the species. More research is needed to determine how breeding behaviors contribute to the recruitment of kits and subsequent conservation of the species.
All spotted skunk kits are born nearly hairless with eyes and ears closed. The kits can see and hear at four weeks, develop the ability to spray musk after six weeks, then are weaned to solid food around two months. They remain with their mother until at least autumn when they can disperse to begin their independent, solitary life. Females are known to occasionally congregate in one large underground den during winter, although none of the spotted skunk species hibernate. Males remain solitary throughout the year.
Just like their striped cousins, spotted skunks are voracious insectivores. Their short, yet strong, front legs and claws are designed for efficient digging and climbing. Grubs, insects, spiders, amphibians, small reptiles, and rodents are all sought when hunting along the forest floor. Their sensitive hearing detects subterranean quarry, which is quickly excavated and chomped. Any edible vegetation, such as berries, nuts, plant stems, and roots all supplement their diet when meat is not available.
Spotted skunks spend more time climbing trees than striped skunks, which allows them an additional food source high above the forest. Within the canopy, spotted skunks can capture a wider variety of insects as well as harvest fruit from limbs. These crafty omnivores are also known to raid bird nests, stealing nutritious eggs. Finally, when an opportunity to dine upon carrion arrives, spotted skunks eat their fill. However, due to their shy nature, spotted skunks do not disturb human trash cans as often as striped skunks.
No matter what diet they may encounter, all spotted skunk species have one goal: eat anything possible as much as possible until winter arrives. The fat reserves built during the season of plenty are crucial to surviving the cold of winter.
New research shows striped skunks are most active at dawn and dusk, a pattern known as crepuscular. However, spotted skunks remain truly nocturnal, hunting through the night and rarely seen during daylight. During the days of summer, spotted skunks find a comfortable, cool area under an overhang of a large rock, in a tree cavity, or any other hidden space. Although the location of rest is highly variable, studies have shown two factors are important for an acceptable slumber area: it must be relatively cold and completely dark. As winter arrives, the cryptic mustelids seek out underground dens built by gophers, wood rats, armadillos, or even striped skunks. If an acceptable den can not be found or commandeered, then they can dig their own, however, studies point to a trend where occupying previous dug dens is preferred.
INTERACTIONS WITH HUMANS
After most large-scale trapping dwindled by the mid-1900s, skunks rebounded in most of their indigenous range until urban sprawl blanketed the continent by the late 1900s. The larger and more brazen striped skunk learned to live among human settlements and even profit from them. While the petite, shy spotted skunk retreated to the deep forest and avoided people. Now, as their necessary habitat continues to diminish, spotted skunks are quickly declining too.
Investigations into the possibility of listing Eastern spotted skunks as Endangered are ongoing. Biologists are unable to achieve accurate population counts in several states, so the status of these reclusive creatures is unknown. The same shy nature that keeps spotted skunks away from human development is not complicating the research meant to save them. Conservationists worry that spotted skunks may be extinct or in grave danger within certain geographic areas of their range, thus in 2015 the IUNC updated Eastern spotted skunk status to Vulnerable. Additional research with better methods is sorely needed to accurately assess Eastern spotted skunks.
Even where spotted skunk populations are healthy in the West, they remain one of the most misunderstood mammals in the forest. They rarely encounter humans in their habitat, as they immediately move away when hearing us approach. In the unlikely event of surprising a spotted skunk, they first attempt to run away. If cornered or attacked, spotted skunks perform a handstand while facing their opponent, then arch their back so their tail and hind legs also point toward the aggressor. This acrobatic move allows the skunk to both see the target, as well as shoot its potent odorous musk as a defense.
Accurate within ten feet, their spray is considered not quite as overpowering as striped skunks, but still is horrid and can even cause temporary blindness with a direct hit to the eyes. All natural predators and humans alike avoid the chance of being sprayed, unfortunately, our dogs do not always abide by this rule of nature.
Although living with skunks requires some awareness and avoidance of possible spraying, the ecological benefits of controlling insect and rodent populations in North American forests are worth some human preparation. Spotted skunks typically do not live near humans, and then even avoid close interactions and potential spraying when around us. Ultimately, they are even easier to coexist with than their striped cousins who hang out in our backyards. Now that humans have depleted their habitat, it is time for us to understand and protect this important mesocarnivore before they succumb to unbridled human expansion.