9 Striking Skunk Facts

Many people don't appreciate skunks, and that stinks

Striped skunk portrait, warm colors. Black and white stinky skunk.
Striped skunk. Layne vanRhijn / Getty Images

Skunks usually need no introduction. And in the rare cases when they do, they have a knack for making a strong first impression.

These small mammals are notorious for their noxious defense mechanism. When a skunk feels threatened, it can spray a foul-smelling liquid from highly developed anal scent glands, overwhelming the recipient and letting the skunk escape. This not only protects that particular skunk at that moment, but because the stench is so potent and durable, it also teaches predators (and people) a long-term lesson about avoiding skunks in general.

Yet while most people are aware that skunks can raise a stink, far fewer appreciate the impressive details of this adaptation — or of the amazing animals behind it. In hopes of shedding more light on these incredible creatures, and to help dispel some common myths, here are a few striking quirks and facts about skunks.

1. Skunks Belong to a Distinct Family

Skunks were once considered part of the weasel family, Mustelidae, a group of carnivorous mammals that also includes martens, minks, badgers, otters, and wolverines. Based on newer molecular evidence, though, skunks are now generally classified in a family of their own, Mephitidae.

There are 13 species of mephitids alive today in four genera, including skunks as well as closely related animals known as stink badgers. Three of the four genera are true skunks, all of which live in the New World, ranging from Canada to central South America. The fourth genus features two species of stink badgers, which inhabit islands in Indonesia and the Philippines.

2. They Sometimes Dance Before Spraying

An eastern spotted skunk performs a handstand dance.
An eastern spotted skunk performs a handstand dance. Stan Tekiela / Getty Images

Skunks regenerate their oil, but they can only hold a certain amount at a time, and since it's both costly to make and potentially life-saving to have on hand, they often try to fend off minor threats in other ways before spraying.

For some skunks, that means first attempting to intimidate their enemies with dance moves. Spotted skunks, for instance, can store just 15 grams (1 tablespoon) of their distinctive oil, and may need a week to replenish it once it's used. In hopes of defusing lesser dangers without spraying, they sometimes perform a "handstand dance."

As the name suggests, this involves the skunk standing upright on its forelimbs, with its tail and hind legs up in the air. It may also feature stomping, hissing, charging, and scratching, as well as ominous aiming of its scent glands as a threat.

3. They Often Aim for the Eyes

A striped skunk with its tail raised.
A striped skunk with its tail raised.

Lynn Gildner / Getty Images 

If these intimidation tactics don't work, a skunk may finally resort to its trademark defense mechanism. The animal bends its body into a U-shape, aims its anal glands at the threat, and sprays with alarming accuracy.

Skunks are known to aim for the eyes, which would offer a clear advantage in escaping from predators. Their spray contains sulfur-based thiols that not only create an overwhelming stench, but also cause significant eye irritation, potentially even causing temporary blindness for several minutes.

4. They Can Adjust Their Spray

Skunks have a high degree of control over their spray, and not just in terms of directional aim. They can fire a concentrated stream to neutralize an approaching threat, for example, or release a mist to engulf a pursuing predator. They can spray from one or both scent glands at a time, sometimes across impressive distances.

Stink badgers can send their spray more than 1 meter (3.3 feet) away, but some skunks, such as North America's striped skunk, can spray accurately up to 3 meters (10 feet) away, and with less accuracy up to 6 meters (20 feet), often several times in a short period.

5. Tomato Juice Won't Get Rid of the Smell

Dog getting a tomato juice bath after being sprayed by skunk
Tomato juice and soap might help, but they won't get of skunk smell.

OakleyOriginals / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

A common folk remedy suggests fighting skunk oil with tomato juice, or even bathing in tomato juice if sprayed badly enough. Although it is slightly acidic, tomato juice does not break down the thiols responsible for a skunk's stench. At most, the scent of tomatoes can mask or muddle the smell, but lots of odors could do that, so there's no specific need for a tomato bath.

It is possible to deactivate the smell of skunk oil with household staples, though. A solution of baking soda and hydrogen peroxide is widely recommended, sometimes with a small amount of dishwashing soap. Mixing 1 quart of hydrogen peroxide, a quarter cup of baking soda, and 2 teaspoons of dishwashing soap should be effective, according to one guide from Texas A&M University Extension. This can be used for humans or dogs (perhaps the most common victims of skunks).

Warning

Avoid the eyes when applying this solution. Additionally, do not store unused solution—it could pose an explosion risk if left in a sealed container.

In addition, a recent study published in the Journal of Natural Products found a fungal compound — pericosine A — capable of neutralizing skunk oils. In the future, this compound may help create a natural product to fight skunk spray odor.

6. About 1 in 1,000 People Can't Smell Skunks

An estimated 2 million people in the United States have general anosmia, which means they do not have a sense of smell, but it's more common for someone to experience specific anosmia, or blindness only to specific scents. About 1 in 1,000 people, for example, reportedly are unable to smell the thiols that give skunk oil its repulsive odor.

7. Skunks Eat Bees

Skunks are omnivores, and their diet depends largely on where they live. Many eat berries, leaves, nuts, and roots, along with mushrooms. Many also eat small vertebrates like rodents, lizards, snakes, and birds, as well as invertebrates like worms and insects.

In some places, skunks are also major predators of bees. Striped skunks often prey on beehives, for example, eating both adult and larval bees.

8. Many Predators Avoid Skunks, but Not All Do

Three red foxes take a big risk hassling a skunk.
Three red foxes take a big risk hassling a skunk. John Conrad / Getty Images 

Skunks use warning coloration to advertise their noxiousness, and predators generally seem to get the message. Some larger mammals occasionally do prey on skunks, however, including coyotes, foxes lynx, and pumas.

Owls are among the main predators of skunks in many places, particularly great horned owls. Not only can they swoop in silently from above, giving skunks less time to aim, but they also have a weak sense of smell.

9. Skunks Are Bold, but Not Bullies

Skunks often have a swagger, strutting through underbrush without trying to be sneaky, aware that their warning coloration can be more effective than attempted stealth. This temerity caught the attention of the famed naturalist Charles Darwin in 1833, when he was exploring South America.

"Conscious of its power, it roams by day about the open plain, and fears neither dog nor man," Darwin wrote of the skunk in "A Naturalist's Voyage Round the World." "If a dog is urged to the attack, its courage is instantly checked by a few drops of the fetid oil, which brings on violent sickness and running at the nose. Whatever is once polluted by it, is for ever useless."

Skunks are primarily nocturnal, but whether they're roaming by daylight or after dark, they do have an air of confidence about them. Despite their boldness, skunks are not generally aggressive with each other or with animals from other species. Their home ranges often overlap, and although they tend to forage alone, they sometimes live in dens with as many as 10 other individuals, or even with other species, such as opossums.

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