Fast facts: skunks


Photos and interesting facts adapted from our Facebook posts

This is an orphaned Striped Skunk, Mephitis mephitis, as seen from the end you’d want to avoid! Skunks are able to spray as soon as they’re born. But, not very effectively and not very far. That’s how wildlife rehabilitators can handle them without much worry. That, and the fact that skunks aren’t aggressive. They’ll spray and bite, if necessary. If startled, they’ll usually spray immediately. If cornered and the aggressor won’t heed their warning to back away, they’ll spray.  All about the Striped skunk

Baby Striped Skunk female lying on her back in the palm of someone's hand.

Baby Striped Skunk (Carolyn VinZant / Flickr; cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

Skunks are beneficial predators of rodents, pest insects, scorpions and others. Of course, we don’t want them to den under our porch, but so long as we don’t startle them (which makes them spray in quick defense), we can co-habitate peacefully. Carry a light with you at night when walking in unlit areas. If you see one, they’ll hiss, lunge forward, stomp as a warning. Just slowly back away. That’s it. They’ll go on their way without spraying.

Baby Striped Skunk drinking milk from a tiny baby bottle.

Baby Striped Skunk, Mephitis mephitis. (Carolyn VinZant / Flickr; cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

Skunk musk isn’t stinky urine. It’s an oily, sticky sulphur compound formed in their two anal glands. They can spray it with great accuracy up to 10 feet (3.05 m) or more. For you chemistry students, shown here is the chemical composition of some of the musk compounds.

diagram of chemical structure of a skunk musk.

Skunk musk chemical compositiion. (Karl Hahn / Wiki; PD)

The Western Spotted Skunk (Spilogale gracilis), smaller than the Striped Skunk, inhabits the western U.S., northern Mexico and British Columbia, in rocky and brushy areas, favoring bluffs and outcroppings for their dens. Their babies are born in April to May, even though their breeding season occurs seven months earlier, in September to October. If that seems like an unusually long gestation, it is. Skunks are a bit unusual. With them, the embryos remain at an early developmental stage (just a few cells) for about 200 days before implanting in the uterus. Gestation takes about another 220 days.   

Western Spotted Skunk standing outside its den.

Western Spotted Skunk. (Alden M. Johnson / California Academy of Sciences; cc by-nc-sa 3.0)

The Eastern Spotted Skunk (Spilogale putorius) is secretive and not often seen. So, if you hear foot stomping, move away! They’re a bit different from the Western Spotted Skunk. For instance, their white marking is more extensive, the black and white stripes on the upper back are nearly equal in width. Also, they’re very small — about the size of a large tree squirrel. And, of course, they live in the eastern half of U.S.

Color illustration on a playing card of an Eastern Spotted Skunk standing in front of foliage.

Eastern Spotted Skunk, on a card in the Phylo Trading Card Game ( (Heather E. Harlow / Wiki; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

All about the Striped Skunk  
How to humanely remove wildlife from people spaces  
Skunks: frequent questions