Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

March 20, 2008

Staring at the Stink Eye

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:04 pm

  In the interest of science, I did something that sane folk rarely do.  I picked up a Striped Skunk by the tail and looked it right in the “other eye” – you know, the stink eye.  There is an old truism that a skunk can’t spray you when it’s being held upside down by the tail. In my case, I found this to be very true.  The animal didn’t employ its chemical arsenal even though it was being held at arms length. In fact, it couldn’t spray me, just like the old wise tale says, because of the position it was in.  Here’s a picture of that very skunk in the position it was in just before I lifted it – lying still and cold at the side of the road. Yes, it was dead.

  When I first came upon the unfortunate beast it was the proverbial “dead skunk in the middle of the road.”  There was little traffic, so I stopped to take a closer look. The nice thing about this sacrificial critter was that it was in pretty good shape and, most importantly, it hadn’t “gone off” when the hit and run had occurred.  In other words it was approachable and therefore I approached it and dragged it off to the side of the road.

    My skunk displayed some interesting traits and I wanted to make it “your” skunk by showing you a few features.  For instance, you will note that this animal was mostly black (see here). The back of his head was white as was the inner fur on the tail, but the rest was as black as coal. Even though the typical pattern of a Striped Skunk is to have a bi-furcated white stripe running down its back and tail, no two individuals are alike.  The species can vary from all black to nearly all white and every black & white combination in-between.

  Skunks are omnivores that eat a wide variety of plant and animal foods. They especially like to dig for grubs and are formidably equipped for the task with long front claws (see here). Their hind feet are bear-like and they walk flat-footed just like us humans (see here). I’ll bet you probably didn’t realize that skunks had such soft pink soles and I’ll equally bet you probably don’t care.  Well, it’s not that you don’t care is more likely that you just never thought about it.  When thinking of skunks, it is the stink we predominately think about. After all, their scientific name Mephitis means “bad odor” in Latin- not pink-padded beast.

 The odor of skunk spray in the air is a sure sign that spring itself is breathing down our nostrils. Road kill animals litter the highways this time of year as the animals begin to disperse over the landscape. This is their mating season and they are pounding the pavement seeking other bi-colored soul mates. Along the way they may be prompted to use their chemical self defense system, although they prefer not to.  Whether their spray is induced by a Firestone or a Fox, their unique prickly musk scent travels through the moist air for well over a mile.  One reference even states that this scent can be detected up to 20 miles away, although I’m not sure how they deduced that given that there are bound to be a thousand squished skunks stink’n up the space over the course of that distance.

  I picked up my/your skunk in order to provide you with this rare unscented view of the business end of the animal. Take a look (at this view) under the tail and you’ll see a prominent oval pink area that encompasses the anus and the spray nozzles.  Against that black furry background it stands out like a sore thumb.  Upon closer inspection you should be able to see a pair of structures called anal nipples. I realize that this may be an uncomfortable combination of words for you to say, but please realize that these are the spigots that control the chemical spray.

  When threatened, skunks will run away if at all possible. They are very peaceful little creatures at heart. If flight isn’t an option, they’ll stamp the ground with their feet in order to provide a warning shot over the bow, so to speak.  Only as a last resort will they let loose with the big one. At this point they turn about, raise their tail and put the pucker on the two everted rear nipples. This squeezes out a misty stream that can go as far as 15 feet in the direction of the perceived attacker. Each gland holds about a tablespoon of the yellowish musk (chemically called butylmercaptan). Each is capable of releasing 5 or 6 jets of smelly goodness if necessary – although multiple shots are rarely necessary. 

  Contact with the pungent chemical causes a temporary loss of vision along with a burning sensation in the victim. Normally this effect lasts only long enough for the offended skunk to make its getaway, but occasionally it can have harsher side effects. Great Horned Owls are skunk killing specialists that rely on stealth and a quick murderous attack.  Sometimes an owl miscalculates and ends up at the receiving end of a direct blast that grounds it for days – during which time the bird weakens from hunger and eventually dies.

  I have to say that even an “un-exploded” skunk is a smelly thing.  This road kill skunk, though intact, was permeated with “eau du pole cat.” My fingers and even the camera smelled of skunk for several days after my non-confrontational encounter.  I would even venture to say that the pictures stink as well. Go ahead, smell them.

  By the way, live skunks can spray you even if they are being held by the tail.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress