“The skunk” is one of the most recognized mammals in North America and due to its unusual use of extremely well developed scent glands as a primary defense mechanism; it also is one of the most maligned. However, “the skunk” refers to more than the well-known striped skunk. The skunk family Mephitidae is composed of 11 species in four genera, which occur primarily in the western hemisphere. Skunks make up a diverse group of carnivores living in a variety of habitats, have different ecological requirements, and a wide variety of behavioral and reproductive idiosyncrasies.


General Descriptions

The basic color of skunks is black and white. Other colors, such as brown and red, have been observed both in the wild and as a result of domestic breeding. The typical pattern seen in striped skunks is the white "V" down the back and a white bar between the eyes running from the forehead to the middle of the rostrum. Color pattern in wild skunks is highly variable and can range from completely black to completely white (non-albino). The striping pattern cannot be used to determine the sex of the animal, nor can it be used to predict how much snow will fall. Skunks are born with their stripes before they have hair. Hooded skunks have 3 typical color patterns, but again there is considerable variation. These skunks have two thin stripes running down the side of the body from the shoulder to the stomach or a single stripe running down the back from the forehead to the tail. This single white stripe is interspersed with black hair giving a gray appearance. The third color pattern is a combination of both. These skunks also have a white bar between the eyes. Spotted skunks are not truly spotted, but have a series of stripes, which are interrupted, running down the back and sides of the animal. Hog-nosed skunks in the United States and northern Mexico have a single solid (no black hairs) white stripe down the back, which starts at the top of the head and can range from a thin stripe that stops just past the shoulder blades to an extremely wide stripe continuing to the tail and covering the entire back and most of the side of the animal. The hog-nosed skunks of Central and South America have a double stripe in the "V" pattern seen in North American striped skunks. These skunks do not have any markings between the eyes. Stink badgers bear a slight resemblance to North American hog-nosed skunks. The white stripes down the back can be divided, single and narrow, or absent.

Striped, hooded, and hog-nosed skunks are approximately the same size, approaching the size of a small house cat. Hog-nosed skunks tend to be the largest and hooded skunk the smallest of this group, but there is a lot of overlap in size. Spotted skunks are the smallest of the skunks and range from a handful to about the size of a squirrel. Stink badgers are about as long as spotted skunks but as wide as striped skunks. They are intermediate in size to the striped and spotted skunks and have a much shorter tail than the American skunks.



Today, skunks can be found from Canada to South America and with the recent inclusion of stink badgers in the family they also can be found on Palawan and Calamian islands as well as Java, Borneo, Sumatra and neighboring islands. Striped skunks are found from the southwestern Northwest Territories to Hudson Bay and southern Quebec (Canada), south to Florida (USA), northern Tamaulipas, Durango, and northern Baja California (Mexico). Hooded skunks occur from southern Arizona, New Mexico, and southwestern Texas (USA), through Mexico to Costa Rica. Spotted skunks are found from southwestern Canada east to Minnesota and south central Pennsylvania (USA), south to Costa Rica. The pygmy spotted skunk only occur form Sinaloa to Oaxaca (Mexico). The striped hog-nosed skunks are found throughout South America from the Straits of Magellan all the way north to Veracruz, Tabasco, and Yucatan (Mexico). The white-backed hog-nosed skunks occur from Arizona to the Gulf Coast of Texas south to Veracruz and southwest to Nicaragua.


Evolutionary History

The distribution of the Mephitidae can be explained by examining the fossil record. While skunks do not occur in Europe today, they did occur there in the past. The oldest recognized fossil identified as a skunk occurred in Germany about 11-12 million years ago. Genetic data, however, place the origin of the family back to about 30-40 million years ago. Skunks evolved from some of the earliest ancestors of the modern carnivores and are members of a group of carnivores called the Mustelida, and includes the Musteloidea (Mustelidae and Procyonidae), Ailuridae (red panda), and the Mephitidae.


Economic Value

At one time skunk pelts (especially striped) were valuable in the fur industry, but they are less valuable today. Then and now, however, skunks are more valuable alive. Most members of the skunk family prey primarily on insects, especially insects harmful to the agricultural economy. The earliest legislation for the protection of skunks grew out of appeals from hop growers in New York and was passed in 1893.

Skunks are especially useful in destroying the rats and mice that commonly infest farm buildings. Spotted skunks are remarkably efficient as destroyers of rats and mice because they are quick and can follow rats and mice into smaller crannies than other skunks can enter.

Striped skunks have been tamed and kept as pets. However, skunks do not make good pets. Good pet owners make good pets.

Unfortunately, skunks are known to carry diseases as well. They are susceptible to rabies and there are at least four rabies variants that are endemic to skunk populations. They also can contract and transmit other strains (raccoon, bat, fox, etc.). Like all mammals they have to be exposed to the virus before they can transmit it. Once the symptoms appear they will die.


Natural History

Skunks emit a noxious odor from anal scent glands as their primary means of defense. All carnivores have anal scent glands, but they are extremely well developed in skunks. The glands are located at the base of the tail just inside the rectum. The chemical compositions involved in odor are different among skunk species, but contain various thiols (sulfur compounds) and thioacetates.

Each gland has a papillae associated with it and skunks can aim and direct the spray with highly coordinated muscle control. When a skunk is being chased by a predator, but cannot see the predator, the spray is emitted as an atomized cloud that the predator must run through. This is usually 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.

Before a skunk will spray it will go through a series of threat behaviors. Striped and hooded each will stomp with both front feet. Sometimes they will charge forward a few paces and then stomp or will edge backwards while dragging their front feet. Hog-nosed skunks use a similar tactic, except they will stand up on their hind feet and slam their front feet to the ground while letting out a loud hissing noise. The acrobats, spotted skunks, perform a front handstand and approach a potential predator, appearing much larger than they really are. Stink badgers will snarl, show teeth, and stamp their forefeet. They also have been observed to feign death (with the anal area directed at the observer).

Skunks are capable diggers. Hog-nosed skunks are quite adept at it and have powerfully built upper bodies. This powerful upper body strength allows them to climb up rough terrain. Spotted skunks are the most agile. They can climb both up and down trees almost squirrel-like. Striped skunks can climb, but as they get older they tend to become bottom heavy and lack the agility of spotted skunks.

Striped skunks are omnivorous. They feast on bugs, small mammals and birds, eggs of both birds and reptiles, as well as a variety of vegetable matter. Spotted skunks are the more carnivorous of the skunks and feed on rodent pests. They too will eat bugs and vegetable matter given the opportunity. Hog-nosed skunks and stink badgers are built to root for bugs and grubs in the soil. They have elongated noses (hog-nosed skunks have a long naked nose patch) for this task. Like the other skunks, they too rely on a variety of foods.

Great horned owls, eagles, crows, vultures, coyotes, foxes, dogs, bobcats, mountain lions, American badgers, and humans are a few of the vertebrates that have been reported to eat skunks, but a major cause of mortality for skunks is automobiles. Stink badgers are preyed upon by Civets (family Viverridae), cats, and people. Skunks also will succumb to parasites and diseases.

Skunks usually have from 2 to 12 offspring (striped skunks are the more prolific). Kits are born around the end of April through early June, possibly earlier for stink badgers. Breeding usually occurs in February and March. Striped skunks may have a short period of delayed implantation if they breed early. Western spotted skunks breed in September and have a longer period of delayed implantation (about 150 days). Eastern spotted skunks breed the same time of year as other skunks. Both species produce litters at the same time.

Skunks usually remain solitary except during breeding season, though in colder climates groups of females may den together. After mating, the male is driven off and females raise their young independently. Striped skunks are common throughout their range, but population estimates of other species are not well known. However, eastern spotted skunks may be on the decline throughout its range and the Patagonian skunk is listed as Appendix II by CITES.



Historically, skunks have been classified as a subfamily in the weasel family, the Mustelidae. Recent genetic data have allowed them to be reclassified into their own family. Additionally, stink badgers have been included in the badger subfamily of the weasel family. Morphometric and genetic data have been used to demonstrate that they should be classified with the skunks. The family Mephitidae is derived from the genus Mephitis, which is Latin for "bad odor". Within the family there has been some debate as to the number of genera and species. The two species of stink badgers were thought to be distinct genera, but here are referred to as a single genus. The eastern and western spotted skunks have been classified as a single species, but genetic and reproductive data warrant recognition of two species. Chromosomal data suggest that at least one more species is found in Central America. The western and Gulf Coast hog-nosed skunks are here recognized as a single species, based on genetic and morphological data.

The four genera in the Mephitidae are: Mephitis, including the striped skunk, Mephitis mephitis, and the hooded skunk M. macroura; Spilogale consisting of at least 4 species, S. angustifrons, the southern spotted skunk, S. putorius, the eastern spotted skunk, S. gracilis, the western spotted skunk, and S. pygmaea, the pygmy spotted skunk; Conepatus, containing C. leuconotus, the white-backed hog-nosed skunk, C. semistriatus, the striped hog-nosed skunk, and C. chinga, the South American (or Molina's) hog-nosed skunk; and finally, the only non-American genus, Mydaus, the stink badgers, M. javanensis, the Sunda stink badger, and M. marchei, the Philippine stink badger.