The Chemistry of Skunk Spray

  • Posted 10.13.16
  • NOVA

How do you get rid of skunk odor? Don't use tomato juice... use chemistry! Learn more in this episode of Gross Science.

Close
Running Time: 03:50

Transcript

The Chemistry of Skunk Spray

Posted: October 13, 2016

Why do skunks smell so bad? It all comes down to chemistry.

By the way, this video will include slow motion footage of skunk anuses. So, be warned.

I’m Anna Rothschild, and this is Gross Science.

There are a number of species of skunk in the world, but the most iconic has to be the striped skunk. That’s the one that looks like Pepe Le Pew—it’s all black, typically with one white line that usually splits into two on its back. And it can be found all over the United States as well as northern Mexico and southern Canada. Its latin name is Mephitis mephitis, which appropriately enough means something like foul stench or noxious vapor.

Obviously, that’s because the most defining character of skunks is their defensive spray, which can cause watery eyes, nausea, and leave you smelling terrible. The chemical makeup of the spray is different depending on the species, but all of them contain special types of compounds called “thiols.” Thiols, also known as “mercaptans,” are a type of chemical group made up of a sulfur and hydrogen atom bonded together. And they typically smell really strongly.

There are actually three different thiols in striped skunks spray, and two of those are the main contributors to the awful odor. But three other molecules in the spray are what are called “thioacetates.” Those compounds don’t have a strong scent, but they can easily become thiols when they’re exposed to water. And that might explain why a pet that gets sprayed may start to smell skunky again after a bath.

Now, skunk musk is produced by anal scent glands—which actually, lots of mammals have, though most aren’t quite this exciting. When a skunk sprays, nipple-like protrusions called papillae come out of the anus and squirt the musk at the target. The bad news is they can squirt a distance of about 10 feet, and are uncannily good at hitting their mark. The good news is that skunks really don’t want to spray unless they have to, and adults usually give warning signals beforehand. Striped skunks will hiss, stomp, and raise their tails before spraying. And spotted skunks will even do a handstand.

But, what should you do on the off-chance that you wind up covered in musk? Well, definitely don’t use tomato juice—that’s just a myth. Instead, use something that converts the thiol into a different type of compound. Some scientists suggest using a mixture of dilute hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, and a little liquid soap, which will oxidize the thiol and turn it into a sulfonic acid. But be careful, because it could dye your hair or pet fur.

Anyway, despite their terrible reputation, some skunks have actually been domesticated, and people say they make really cute and affectionate pets. But if you do want a pet skunk, make sure you know how to take care of it and get one from a breeder. Grabbing one from the woods is not at all nice for the skunk. And it would probably let you know that by squirting you with an anal gland full of noxious musk.

Ew.

Credits

PRODUCTION CREDITS

Host, Producer, Editor
Anna Rothschild
Researcher, Writer
Eliza Lehner
Camera, Sound
Gil Kaplan
Many thanks to Drs. William F. Wood and Stanley D. Gehrt
Comme Un Pigeon
Music Provided by APM

FOOTAGE AND IMAGES

Footage of Skunk Spraying
Courtesy WNET
NATURE “Is That Skunk?”
Stinktier, Skunks, Mephitis mephitis, Striped Skunks, Minnesota, USA, cub
Shutterstock/Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH
Blue Merle Australian Shepherd puppy, 10 weeks old, looking at Striped Skunk, Mephitis Mephitis, 5 years old, sitting in front of white background
Shutterstock/Eric Isselee
Pepe Le Pew Gif
Giphy/Warner Brothers
Baby skunk
Wikimedia Commons/AnimalPhotos
Juvenile Spotted Skunk
Flickr/vladeb
American hog-nosed skunk (Conepatus leauconotus)
Flickr/Saguaro National Park
Striped Skunk
Flickr/Land Between the Lakes …
Striped Skunk (cropped)
Wikimedia Commons/ http://www.birdphotos.com
Striped Skunk
Wikimedia Commons/ http://www.birdphotos.com
Washing a dog in a bath tub
Wikimedia Commons/Andrew Vargas
Mephitis
Flickr/Jon Nelson
Spotted Skunk and Cocomistle
Flickr/Ryan Somma
Tomato juice 316744
Wikimedia Commons/PublicDomainPictures-14
Skunk being cuddled
Wikimedia Commons/Gary J. Wood
PET SKUNK
Wikimedia Commons/Paul M. Walsh
Lapskunk
Wikimedia Commons/octobop
Baby Striped Skunk
Flickr/Land Between the Lakes …

SFX

Cockroaches
Freesound/StateAardvark­
(used with permission from author)
Squeak Pack/squeak_10
Freesound/Corsica_S
Wink
Freesound/Wink
Swishes
Freesound/Pogotron
Pencil
Freesound/faston
Sniff
Freesound/jrssandoval
Bad Beep Incorrect
Freesound/richerlandtv
Poof of Smoke
Freesound/planman
Produced by WGBH for PBS Digital Studios

POSTER IMAGE

Listeria
©WGBH Educational Foundation 2016

Sources

Want more info?

Recipe for De-Skunking Spray:
http://users.humboldt.edu/wfwood/deodorize.shtml

Chemicals in Striped Skunk Spray:
http://users.humboldt.edu/wfwood/skunkspray.shtml

Related Links