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striped skunk

Mephitis mephitis

What do they look like?

Striped skunks are easily distinguishable by their pattern and the color of their fur. The majority of their fur is black and they have a thin, white stripe that runs along the top of their snout and forehead. They also have a prominent white marking, which starts on their neck and runs down their back, splitting into a thick, V-shape near their rump. They have a bushy, black tail, which may have white hairs on the edges. Striped skunks have small, triangular-shaped heads, short ears and black eyes. (Chapman and Feldhamer, 1982; Kurta, 1995; Nowak and Wilson, 1999; Wade-Smith and Verts, 1982; Whitaker, 1996)

Males are slightly larger than females. Striped skunks are usually about the size of domestic cats; however, their sizes can vary. Their total length has been documented many times and estimates range from 465 to 815 millimeters, their tail length ranges from 170 to 400 millimeters and their hindfoot ranges from 55 to 85 millimeters. (Chapman and Feldhamer, 1982; Kurta, 1995; Wade-Smith and Verts, 1982; Whitaker, 1996)

Striped skunks weight between 0.7 to 6.3 kilograms. However, during the winter, males and females can lose up to half of their body mass. Striped skunks sizes and fur patterns vary across their ranges. (Chapman and Feldhamer, 1982; Kurta, 1995; Nowak and Wilson, 1999; Wade-Smith and Verts, 1982)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    0.7 to 6.3 kg
    1.54 to 13.88 lb
  • Range length
    465 to 815 mm
    18.31 to 32.09 in

Where do they live?

Striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis) have a range spanning most of North America. From east to west, they reach from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, covering most of the continental United States and southern regions of Canada. They also range to the south over a portion of northern Mexico. (Kurta, 1995; Wade-Smith and Verts, 1982; Whitaker, 1996)

What kind of habitat do they need?

Striped skunks are commonly found in a variety of habitats including woodlands, forests, wooded ravines and grassy plains. More recently, they have been found in suburban neighborhoods and farming areas. They are also found near rivers, scrubland and cities. Generally striped skunks are found at elevations from sea level to 1,800 meters, but have been documented as high as 4,200 meters. (Chapman and Feldhamer, 1982; Kurta, 1995; Wade-Smith and Verts, 1982; Whitaker, 1996)

  • Range elevation
    sea level to 4,200 m
    to ft
  • Average elevation
    sea level to 1,800 m
    ft

How do they reproduce?

Female striped skunks usually only reproduce once a year, however, males will reproduce multiple times, with multiple females. After mating, females no longer associate with males and will become aggressive towards them. (Kurta, 1995; Wade-Smith and Verts, 1982; Whitaker, 1996)

Striped skunks usually breed sometime between February and April. However, if they lose their litter, they may reproduce again within the same season. Striped skunks are pregnant for about 59 to 77 days. They can have a litter of 2 to 10 young, each weighing 32 to 35 grams. (Kurta, 1995; Wade-Smith and Verts, 1982; Whitaker, 1996)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Female striped skunks breed once a year under normal circumstances.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs from February to April, or during May under extenuating circumstances.
  • Range number of offspring
    2.0 to 10.0
  • Average number of offspring
    4.0 to 7.0
  • Average number of offspring
    5
    AnAge
  • Range gestation period
    59 to 77 days
  • Range weaning age
    6.0 to 7.0 weeks
  • Range time to independence
    0.5 to 1.0 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    10 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    335 days
    AnAge
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    10 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    Sex: male
    335 days
    AnAge

Although young striped skunks are very small with very little hair, they already have patterns present on their coat at birth. The young do not open their eyes until they are about three weeks old and they nurse until they are about six to seven weeks old. Around this time, they learn to forage and hunt by following their mother in a single file line during her outings. Young are protected by their mother, during this time; she will display extremely defensive behavior. Male young become independent by July or August, while the female young may remain with their mother until the following spring. Both male and female young begin mating around 10 months old. (Kurta, 1995; Wade-Smith and Verts, 1982; Whitaker, 1996)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • protecting
      • female
  • post-independence association with parents

How long do they live?

Striped skunks usually do not survive their first year due to severe weather conditions and diseases. After their first year, they can live up to seven years in the wild and up to 10 years in captivity. Other factors contributing to mortality include predation and parasitism as well as risk from human road systems and hunting. (Gehrt, 2005; Kurta, 1995; Wade-Smith and Verts, 1982; Whitaker, 1996)

How do they behave?

Striped skunks are docile and often ignore other animals, except during the breeding season. Despite their passive nature, they are known for their defensive behavior. All carnivores have scent glands; however, members of their family (Mephitidae) have enlarged anal scent glands. These glands contain an overpowering, yellowish musk, which can be sprayed through the anus and travel up to 6 meters. The scent can be detected by humans from an extremely long distance. The musk may cause nausea, intense pain and temporary blindness. If approached, striped skunks arch their back, raise their tail and stomp the ground with their forelegs as a warning. They may also perform a temporary handstand. If striped skunks still feel threatened, they will bend their hindquarters around while still facing the intruder and spray. Unexpected movements or noises can also cause spraying. (Houseknecht and Tester, 1978; Kurta, 1995; Wade-Smith and Verts, 1982; Whitaker, 1996)

Striped skunks are solitary and primarily nocturnal. Their activity begins around twilight and may continue until daybreak. During the daytime, they take refuge in the abandoned underground dens of other mammals, but may dig their own if needed. They may also rest in hollowed logs or trees, rock or brush piles and the underside of buildings. In areas with cold winters, they will rest in dens above ground in the summer and below ground in the fall to early spring. Although striped skunks do not hibernate, they are less active in the winter. During this time, several striped skunks may den together. During the winter they typically use only one den, however, during warmer weather they may use several dens. Striped skunks living in areas that are warm all year do not become less active during certain parts of the year. (Houseknecht and Tester, 1978; Kurta, 1995; Whitaker, 1996)

  • Range territory size
    3.75 to 5.00 km^2

Home Range

Striped skunks usually have a den on the edge of their long home range. (Houseknecht and Tester, 1978; Kurta, 1995; Wade-Smith and Verts, 1982; Whitaker, 1996)

How do they communicate with each other?

Striped skunks make visual displays to ward off predators or they may use their odiferous spray. Although they are usually silent they may make a wide variety of sounds from low growls to birdlike chirps. Little is known about their senses; however, an individual may react to sound or sight. (Kurta, 1995; Verts, 1967; Wade-Smith and Verts, 1982; Whitaker, 1996)

What do they eat?

Striped skunks are opportunistic feeders, meaning they will change their diet as needed. During the warmer spring and summer seasons, they are primarily insectivorous, known to feed on various grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, larvae and social insects such as bees. Other invertebrates may include worms, crayfish and other non-insect arthropods. Small mammals such as voles, as well as the eggs and young of ground-nesting birds are commonly consumed over the wintering period. Striped skunks are also known to consume amphibians, reptiles, carrion and fish. While up to 80-90% of their diet is from an animal origin, striped skunks are also known to feed on plant matter when in season. This includes corn, nightshade and fruits such as black and ground cherries. (Kurta, 1995; Verts, 1967; Wade-Smith and Verts, 1982; Whitaker, 1996)

  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • amphibians
  • reptiles
  • fish
  • eggs
  • carrion
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • terrestrial worms
  • aquatic crustaceans
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Due to their odiferous spray, most mammals avoid striped skunks, however, large birds of prey are unaffected by their musk, including great horned owls and eagles. Mammalian species known to prey on M. mephitis include mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, and badgers. Even though coyotes are known to prey on them, striped skunks do not seem to avoid areas of coyote activity. (Kurta, 1995; Prange and Gehrt, 2007; Wade-Smith and Verts, 1982; Whitaker, 1996)

  • These animal colors help protect them
  • aposematic

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Striped skunks are an important source of insect control; however, they are also a vector for parasites and disease. These may include fleas, lice, mites, ticks, and botfly larvae as well as various parasitic worms. Among diseases, there have been reports of leptospirosis and canine distemper, though striped skunks are better known as carriers of rabies. Communal denning may aid in the spread of these diseases. They may also carry a variety of other diseases including Q fever, listeriosis, pulmonary aspergillosis, pleuritis, ringworm, murine typhus, tularemia, Chagas' disease and canine parvovirus. (Gehrt, 2005; Kurta, 1995; Verts, 1967; Wade-Smith and Verts, 1982; Whitaker, 1996)

Species (or larger taxonomic groups) that are mutualists with this species
Commensal or parasitic species (or larger taxonomic groups) that use this species as a host

Do they cause problems?

Striped skunks can carry diseases and parasites that are infectious to humans and domesticated animals. They are sometimes considered general pests when they dig up lawns, take up residents in buildings or when they spray their musk. (Kurta, 1995; Wade-Smith and Verts, 1982; Whitaker, 1996)

How do they interact with us?

Striped skunks serve as an important source of insect control. At one time, their pelts were valuable for the fur trade; however, they are not currently in high demand. Striped skunks may have been a source of food for native North Americans and may have been used in medical treatments for both the natives and the pioneers. There is no indication that they are still used as a source of food or medicine, however, the clinging quality of their musk has made it valuable as a perfume foundation. Along with other members of family Mephitidae, striped skunks can be kept as a household pet in certain areas throughout the United States as well as in other countries, though this often requires a permit. (Kurta, 1995; Verts, 1967; Wade-Smith and Verts, 1982; Whitaker, 1996)

Are they endangered?

Striped skunks have an abundant population and are not threatened.

Some more information...

Members of family Mephitidae were once classified in family Mustelidae, but research has shown that they are different enough to be classified into their own family. (Detlefsen and Holbrook, 1921; Dragoo and Honeycutt, 1997; Verts, 1967; Wade-Smith and Verts, 1982)

The genus name Mephitis comes from the Latin word mephit, which means "bad odor". Members of family Mephitidae are also the subjects of folklore for the Native Americans. (Verts, 1967; Wade-Smith and Verts, 1982)

Members of genus Mephitis have been bred for the discovery of different patterns and pelage colors. Eastern skunks (Mephitis pudita) have been used for the discovery of entirely black or white morphs as well as seal brown with white stripes and a few others. (Detlefsen and Holbrook, 1921)

Contributors

Jeffrey Kiiskila (author), Michigan Technological University, Joseph Bump (editor), Michigan Technological University, Leila Siciliano Martina (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff.

References

Chapman, J., G. Feldhamer. 1982. Wild Mammals of North American: Biology, Management, and Conservation. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Detlefsen, J., F. Holbrook. 1921. Skunk breeding. Journal of Heredity, 12/6: 242-254.

Dragoo, J., R. Honeycutt. 1997. Systematics of Mustelid-Like Carnivores. Journal of Mammalogy, 78/2: 426-443.

Gehrt, S. 2005. Seasonal Survival and Cause-Specific Mortality of Urban and Rural Striped Skunks in the Absence of Rabies. Journal of Mammalogy, 86/6: 1164-1170.

Houseknecht, C., J. Tester. 1978. Denning Habits of Striped Skunks (Mephitis mephitis). American Midland Naturalist, 100/2: 424-430.

Kurta, A. 1995. Mammals of the Great Lakes Region, Revised Edition. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Nowak, R., D. Wilson. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World, Sixth Edition. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Prange, S., S. Gehrt. 2007. Response of Skunks to a Simulated Increase in Coyote Activity. Journal of Mammalogy, 88/4: 1040-1049.

Verts, B. 1967. The Biology of the Striped Skunk. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Wade-Smith, J., B. Verts. 1982. Mephitis mephitis. Mammalian Species, 173: 1-7.

Whitaker, J. 1996. National Audubon Society Field Guide To North American Mammals, Revised Edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

 
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Kiiskila, J. 2014. "Mephitis mephitis" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed September 02, 2014 at http://www.biokids.umich.edu/accounts/Mephitis_mephitis/

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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