What are the predators of skunks? Skunks are frequently hunted by animals that can catch them off guard, such as eagles, hawks, and owls, as well as other sneaky predators like wolves, coyotes, wolves, and even dogs, despite possessing a reasonably good defensive mechanism.
Three coyotes roam around a deer carcass in a wooded area near metropolitan Chicago. They circle the meal, approaching, stopping, retreating, then splitting off. One dashes in for a nibble, then scrambles back, fearful. By a skunk, to be precise. “Watching this little animal standing on top of a dead buck, holding a band of coyotes at bay,” recalls Ohio State University researcher Stan Gehrt. The skunk never sprayed at all.”
Skunks, coyotes, and other carnivores occupy our urban and suburban surroundings in unexpected numbers, and Gehrt is captivated by their survival methods and social connections. He trapped 146 skunks in the Chicago area between 1999 and 2005, and radio-collared 90 of them for long-term tracking. Gehrt thinks the prevalent perception of skunks, which begins and ends with the word “stinky,” doesn’t begin to do them credit.
Another skunk researcher, California State University–Long Beach biologist Ted Stankowich, heads a lab that investigates the evolution of defensive tactics in mammals through field observations, chemical and statistical analysis. He’s “amazed” by how carefree skunks appear to be. “We’re only beginning to comprehend how they perceive natural threats and how they employ their arsenal of signals and defenses to diffuse the most dangerous circumstances.”
While few of us will study legions of skunks, most of us will come into contact with the notoriously stinky creatures at some point. There are a lot of them out there. The striped skunk, Mephitis mephitis, is the most likely of the world’s 12 recognized species to saunter through American gardens. Striped skunks thrive in the continental United States with typical numbers of five to thirteen animals per square mile, ranging from southern Canada to northern Mexico, and are the inspiration for cartoon icons such as Pepé Le Pew from Looney Tunes and Bambi’s companion Flower. These small animals have adapted to a variety of environments, including wilderness, farms, industrial parks, and housing areas.
Spotted skunks are fewer in number and smaller than striped skunks (about the size of a squirrel), yet they’re practically as common in the United States. Hooded and hog-nosed skunks have ranges that stretch from the Southwest of the United States to Argentina and Peru’s southernmost regions. Two other species can be found on the Philippine and Indonesian islands. These distant cousins share a lot of characteristics, including olfactory protections that make them almost predator-proof. Anal glands are found in all carnivores and produce odorous secretions that are used to mark territory, attract mates, and send other fragrant messages. Skunks, on the other hand, have evolved these glands into a powerful chemical weapon.
The anal glands of a striped skunk are about the size of large grapes, and each one contains almost an ounce of concentrated musk, enough for many explosions. The bags’ powerful muscles can pump out the greasy liquid with enough force to douse a target more than 10 feet away. The spray is precisely controlled by flexible nipples bordering the anus.
When fleeing a predator it can’t see, a skunk may emit a cloud of foul musk that can stop a pursuer in its tracks or produce a cloud of foul musk that can stop a pursuer in its tracks. A skunk’s most intensive, targeted attack involves twisting into a U-shape so that both eyes and rump face the threat, then aiming a torrent of poisonous liquid straight in the face of its opponent. A direct strike can cause gagging, pain in the delicate membranes of the nose and mouth, and even temporary blindness. Predators learn after being sprayed once or twice that attacking a skunk is a poor idea, according to Stankowich. Spray victims are more inclined to approach (or avoid) every other skunk they encounter with the same trepidation that these nasty teachings have instilled in them.
Skunks, on the other hand, are hesitant chemical warriors. Skunks provide multiple warnings when harassed, according to Stankowich, before deploying their weapon of last resort. They hiss and lunge at their foes while hoisting their tails and stamping their front feet. Handstands are added to the “back off!” repertoire by little spotted skunks. They balance on their front paws, bodies and tails straight up, and even charge their opponents when upside down.
The striking coat of a skunk also serves as a warning. Striped skunks like to feed in open places because their bold markings say, “Remember me?” “Get out of here!” Spotted skunks, on the other hand, prefer deep undergrowth, where their shattered markings make them difficult to spot from afar. However, their high-contrast coloring makes them readily recognized up close, drawing the attention of would-be predators.
Spotted skunks are unique because of this. Normally, animals utilize camouflage to hide from predators, or they use prominent marks to alert intruders of strong defenses. According to Stankowich, “blend in” and “stick out” were once thought to be mutually contradictory strategies, but his research reveals that spotted skunks can reduce their risk of dangerous encounters by playing both sides of the visibility game.
Gehrt has documented how effective these various strategies are. Skunks can be eaten by coyotes, foxes, dogs, bobcats, mountain lions, badgers, and huge owls, but they do so infrequently. Predators are responsible for fewer than 5% of skunk mortality, according to Gehrt’s studies.
Of course, there are other dangers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, skunks account for nearly a fifth of all wildlife rabies incidents each year. In less than a year, a single outbreak can wipe out 80 percent of a region’s skunk population. Though the disease is widely disseminated among wild animals and unprotected cats and dogs, transmission to people is extremely rare in the United States and is primarily caused by bat bites, not skunks.
Other diseases, such as pneumonia and distemper, as well as parasitic infestations, winter famine, and automobiles, can all have a significant impact. “Super skunks” that lived up to 6 years old were among the animals Gehrt studied, he says, “but they were exceedingly exceptional.” A wild skunk’s average lifespan is only approximately three years.
Skunks might also have a reputation that isn’t exactly rosy. They’re occasionally labeled as pest animals. “People are normally morbidly scared of skunks, but if you spend any time observing them in the wild, you’ll notice exactly how calm and noble they are,” Stankowich explains. They go about their job, hunting for food, night after night, without bothering anyone.”
Skunks can be beneficial garden companions since they consume insects and small rodents. Skunks are natural pest-control heroes, feeding on beetles, crickets, grubs, grasshoppers, mice, rats, and moles during the growing season.
Skunks can also help humans in another way. “All animals, including humans, require ‘enrichment’ in their habitats,” explains Gehrt—learning and social possibilities. “We get it from the skunks.” It may seem counterintuitive to consider a skunk’s unpleasant burnt-garlic-plus-rotten-egg stench enriching, but Gehrt believes it is. “A whiff of skunk spray every now and then reminds us of the great importance of smell in other creatures’ life,” he says. “It serves as a reminder that skunks exist even when we don’t see them, and that we all live in the same world.”
Skunks (like this striped skunk in California) can be an odor-free treat to observe. “Skunks don’t spray until it’s really necessary,” explains Ted Stankowich, a researcher. However, keep a reasonable distance and pay attention to the animals’ warning indications. Here are a few additional pointers to make skunk relations in your yard friendly:
Access should be restricted. Screen gaps in your foundation and under porches, and keep garages and sheds closed at night to prevent skunks from using your outbuildings or crawl spaces as ready-made burrows.
Hide the food
Skunks may happily dine on readily available foods like pet food or open garbage, so keep these temptations away to prevent skunks from becoming accustomed to a midnight buffet.
Between dark and dawn, when skunks are most active, keep dogs indoors. Maintain rabies immunizations for your pets, and teach your children to monitor wildlife from afar.
Safely remove the smell
If a stray skunk makes an appearance, don’t panic—and leave the tomato juice in the kitchen: the old wives’ tale isn’t true. Instead, soak stinky skin or pet fur in a solution of 4 cups hydrogen peroxide, 1/4 cup baking soda, and 1 teaspoon dish soap. Allow it to sit for about five minutes before rinsing.