Skunks are mammals, usually black with a white stripe on their back and a fluffy tail.
The skunk family includes 10 species of skunks found in North and South America and 2 species of stink badgers found in southeast Asia.
Their average lifespan in the wild is 3 years. In captivity, they may live for up to 10 years.
Skunk species vary in size from about 40 to 94 centimeters (15.6 to 37 inches) long and in weight from about 0.5 kilograms (1.1 lb) (spotted skunks) to 8.2 kilograms (18 pounds) (hog-nosed skunks).
Although the most common fur color is black and white, some skunks are brown or grey and a few are cream-colored.
Some skunks are striped, and some are spotted or have swirl patterns on their fur.
They have moderately elongated bodies with relatively short, well-muscled legs and long front claws for digging.
Although they have excellent senses of smell and hearing, they have poor vision, being unable to see objects more than about 3 meters (10 feet) away.
Skunks are solitary animals when not breeding, though in the colder parts of their range, they may gather in communal dens for warmth.
They are crepuscular which means they come out mostly at dusk and dawn.
Skunks are omnivorous, eating both plants and animals and changing their diets as the seasons change. They eat insects and larvae, earthworms, grubs, rodents, lizards, salamanders, frogs, snakes, fish, birds, moles and eggs. They also commonly eat berries, roots, leaves, grasses, fungi and nuts. In settled areas, skunks also seek garbage left by humans.
Skunks are one of the primary predators of the honeybee, relying on their thick fur to protect them from stings. The skunk scratches at the front of the beehive and eats the guard bees that come out to investigate. Mother skunks are known to teach this behavior to their young.
Skunks can only run about 16 kilometers (10 miles) per hour and will not try to outrun a predator.
Skunks are legendary for their powerful predator-deterrent—a hard-to-remove, horrible-smelling spray. A skunk’s spray is an oily liquid produced by glands under its large tail. To employ this scent bomb, a skunk turns around and blasts its foe with a foul mist that can travel as far as 3 meters (10 feet).
If threatened, skunks stamp their front feet, lift their tail, and growl. Some species of skunk even spring into a handstand before spraying, which puts the skunk’s warning markings on full display. If the person or animal doesn’t retreat, the skunk aims the spray at the eyes, allowing the skunk to escape.
Skunk spray causes no real damage to its victims, but it sure makes them uncomfortable. It can linger for many days and defy attempts to remove it. As a defensive technique, the spray is very effective.
Most predators of the Americas, such as wolves, foxes and badgers, seldom attack skunks, presumably out of fear of being sprayed. The exceptions are dogs, reckless predators whose attacks fail once they are sprayed, and the great horned owl. It is the skunk’s only regular predator. In one case, the remains of 57 striped skunks were found in a single owl nest.
Skunks usually nest in burrows constructed by other animals, but they also live in hollow logs or even abandoned buildings. In colder climates, some skunks may sleep in these nests for several weeks of the chilliest season.
Skunks mate in early spring and are polygynous, meaning that successful males mate with more than one female.
Female skunks give birth every year. Their gestation period often lasts around two months and they give birth to 2 to 10 offspring at a time.
Baby skunks are called kits. Kits are blind when born, since their eyes are sealed shut until around the age of 3 weeks. They are weaned at 2 months old. After they are weaned, they leave the den and at to 10 to 12 months old they are ready to have their own kits.
The mother is protective of her kits, spraying at any sign of danger. The male plays no part in raising the young.
Skunks are not aggressive toward humans. They only spray in self defense.
Some people can’t smell skunks horrible-smelling spray at all and not because they have no sense of smell. Specific anosmia, or insensitivity to one particular smell, is actually more common than general anosmia and one in every 1000 people has no ability to detect skunk spray.
A group of skunks is called a surfeit.
The official name for the skunk family is Mephitidae, which means “stink.”
Johnny Depp once said that his inspiration for Captain Jack Sparrow came from mixing Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards and the cartoon skunk, Pepe Le Pew.