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Earth Notes: Striped Skunks

Dr. Cory T. Williams

Suburbs are prime striped skunk real estate, sheltering up to twenty times more of these infamous animals than surrounding wildlands. Because skunks can be a vector for rabies, biologists at Northern Arizona University have been studying their behavior in some detail.

Intrepid graduate student Victor Zhang captured 21 striped skunks in the Country Club area of Flagstaff—and sometimes received a pungent spraying.

Before releasing them back into the neighborhood, Zhang fitted each animal with a collar-mounted accelerometer—which uses the same technology found in modern pedometers. These “fit bits” for skunks let him precisely track each animal’s activity for a year.

Unlike most mammals, suburban skunks rarely seem affected by weather, probably because food, water, and den sites are plentiful most any time of year. So life in the ’burbs is easy for them compared to the wilds.

And it turns out male skunks have very different routines from females. Males get up at dusk year round, while females vary the start of their nightly activity with the seasons. In summer they become active 40 minutes earlier than males—to have more time to find food for hungry youngsters.

Striped skunks have a wobbly gait because their bodies have traded speedy locomotion to for enlarged scent glands below their tails. Still, skunks are usually reluctant to spray. It leaves them defenseless for a week as they replenish their musk.

If you—or your pet—don’t suddenly rush a skunk, it won’t spray, and you can view these coolest of mammals from just a few yards away.

Next week on Earth Notes, hear more about the skunk-rabies connection.

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