Is That Skunk?
Mephitidae - This Family Stinks!

As noted in Is That Skunk? skunks have not always been classified as their own family. Skunks were originally grouped inside the Mustelidae family (weasels, otters, badgers, and their relatives) because of the physical similarities including a squat body, strong claws for digging, enlarged anal glands and musty anal secretions. But skunks have even larger anal glands, and instead of a duct that secretes scent markings, skunks spray their scent from nipples in the anal gland that can be precisely aimed and controlled. This and other morphological differences led Jerry Dragoo and his colleagues to take a closer look at skunk DNA. They found that skunks did not belong in the Mustelidae family, and should rather be classified as their own family, which they named Mephitidae, after a word meaning “stink.” In fact, the DNA and evidence from the fossil record suggest that the Mephitidae family derived from a single common ancestor about 30-40 million years ago. The descendants of this ancient skunk have evolved into 12 of the stinkiest and most intriguing species on the planet.

Jerry Dragoo with a striped skunk
Photo: James Donald / © WNET.ORG

Striped skunks, Mephitis mephitis: Striped skunks are one of the most abundant and recognizable mammals in North America. They can be found in Canada, throughout the United States, and into northern Mexico. Part of what has made striped skunks such a successful species is their ability to eat almost anything—insects, small mammals and birds, vegetables, fruits, eggs, crustaceans, grasses, and carrion. They will even raid human garbage. Striped skunks are both solitary and nocturnal. Their characteristic fur pattern is a white strip that starts at the forehead and splits into a V shape as it travels down the skunk’s back. Skunks are born hairless, but their stripes are visible from birth. The length and width of stripes varies with each individual. There are also some skunks that are completely black or completely white.

Hooded skunks, Mephitis macroura: Placed in the same genus as the striped skunk, Mephitis, hooded skunks are similar in appearance to striped skunks, but have longer and softer fur, especially around the neck. They also have a longer tail. Like the striped skunk, hooded skunks will stomp with both of their front feet as a warning before spraying. There are three distinct color patterns in the hooded skunk. Some hooded skunks have a single, solid white stripe running down their back from their forehead to the tip of their tail, some have two thin white stripes running down the side of the body from shoulder to stomach, and some have a combination of these two patterns.

Spotted skunks will perform a front handstand when threatened. Image © WNET.ORG

Spotted skunks, Spilogale: Spotted skunks are the smallest members of the family. They are also more slender and have shorter fur. All skunks are good rodent hunters, but spotted skunks are especially good at capturing rats and mice. Spotted skunks are faster than other skunks, and because they are smaller, they can get into small holes and tunnels where rodents may hide. They are also the only skunks that can climb trees. When threatened, spotted skunks do a front handstand, which makes them appear much larger. The “spots” on their back are not actually spots, but a series of interrupted white lines.

Hog-nosed skunks, Conepatus: The elongated snout of the hog-nosed skunk is used to extract bugs and grubs from the ground. Hog-nosed skunks are excellent diggers, and they have long, specialized claws and impressive upper body strength. Their powerful forearms can be used to dig dens and climb up rocky slopes. Hog-nosed skunks can be found in the United States, Mexico, and Central and South America.

Stink badgers, Mydaus: The two species of stink badger are the only members of the Mephitidae family not native to North or South America. The Philippine stink badger can only be found on the islands of Palawan and Busuanga, and the Indonesian stink badger can be found on Sumatra, Java, Borneo, and North Natuna Islands. Like members of the skunk family, stink badgers have short, muscular limbs, elongated claws, a stocky body, and scent spraying anal glands. The most marked difference between stink badgers and skunks is the lack of a bushy tail. Stink badger tails are short and pointed. The Indonesian stink badger has extremely potent anal secretions that are green in color. Both species of stink badger resort to spraying as a second line of defense. Their first defense tactic is to feign death.

  • Renee

    When we go out to educate people about skunks most do not realize that they are in their own family. Usually when we have an albino skunk with us people comment about how that is the biggest ferret they have ever seen. We tell them that it is a skunk and not a ferret and they can’t believe it.

    This is another way we are very appreciative for this special to help people learn about skunks.

    Watch and learn!

  • Sebastian Miller

    I find the whole family delightfull, with the Striped being by far the best known. I recently met a Spotted Skunk, and they are one of the cutest animals on this earth.

  • Laura Knight

    I absolutely adore skunks, they are such wonderful creatures

  • Ace

    The spotted Skunkies that I have seen are cute little industrious, curious individuals. They may be small but they sure don’t know it!!!

  • Arnold Hildebrand ( Wild Brother Animal Behavior Study)

    My wife Cody, and my self, work under an Educational Permit with Ohio Department Of Natural Resources ( Division Of Wildlife) We work mainly in two State Parks. (Hueston Woods State Park & Eastfork State Park. We also do ( Special Assignments) filming and documenting wild skunks living at private residences. One part of our skunk research, is interacting closely with park guests and campers. Our routine involves traveling through the campground areas befor darkness sets in. We are fondly known in Hueston Woods State Park as “The Skunk Patrol” It is amazing how many people wave us down to tell us about thier incounters with visiting wild skunks. Many have stories to tell, others have questions relating to skunks. Often, while filming in the park, people will gather, and stand quietly behind us as we film. People ARE interested in skunks, both wild and domestic ones. Because of negative press for so many years, People did not have a chance to meet and learn about our skunk neighbors. But, times are a changing, thanks to this program ( Is That Skunk) more will learn the true story about skunks. To know them ,is to truely love them.

  • Share Bond, The Skunk Whisperer

    What a great job, Jerry! I miss our long talks. Like Jerry and other skunk rescue and rehabilitators, I umderstand the importance of learning to coexist with these creatures. It’s wonderful that we are learning more and more about this species, because there once was a time when there were a lot of myths about this animal, mostly created out of fear of getting sprayed. Education is one of the most important gifts on earth and I’m so glad that you are doing this documentary on this animal!

  • Aunt Lili

    How recently was Mephitidae inaugurated? – recently I’m guessing…
    More pictures! A picture of each animal described, or links would be grand!

  • Andrea Cowart

    I love this one. I chased a skunk last summer, and had the opportunity to photograph it once it reached the bottom of the hill. I was far enough away not to get sprayed, but, he did bring that tail up and sniff the wind in my direction. I had no idea there were that many types of skunks. To see the picture I took, visit my website @: http://www.andreasphotolenz.com

  • Tammy Rominski

    Yes I used to adore skunks to thought they were cute but as of this morning I no longer have this point of view. It being breeding season up here for them and end of february I woke up and stayed up all night to the scent of skunk so strong it was as if someone shoved onions up my nose eyes watering and nose burning. They were right under my patio and I let my dog out and she wouldnt get them out either. I have now sent my brother out to track them down. If that doesnt work I will be going tonight with my brother and my rifle and Im gettin a few stink bombs off my farm. OMG!! I have hit them on the highway and they have never smelt this horrid granted that stentch was aweful to but this is beyond anything I ever expected. I DONT THINK THEYRE CUTE ANYMORE

  • Stevie Leonard

    SKUNKS ARE AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Janis Knox

    We live near Harper Kansas. Recently a very brave skunk has been showing up around the house, coming into the light, walking on the porch, down the sides of the dirt roads at night. It has two thin white stripes running from it’s snout and down its back instead of one white stripe on it’s nose. What kind of skunk is this?

  • Malcolm

    skunks are awesome!!!! i would like to know if its true that there using the urine composition or some of the components for the making of perfumes????

  • stevie Leonard

    skunks are so awesome but the spray is probably the worst smell!

  • cheyenne

    The best skunk scent neutralizer I have found is Massengill Douche. Just mix it up and wash with it and your problem is solved. It is just too easy. People just don’t seem to want to believe it but would rather try several other more difficult remedies that are not even effective. But, if it happens to you or someone you care about and you need to get on with your life quickly, try Massengill.

  • Michael Rogers

    A male skunk was under our house and sprayed. Wow. What an awful stench. Our entire house is affected and the kids had to come home from school. I have two questions: If it’s a male, is he probably alone or do I have to try and catch another one? (Caught the male with the help of a live trap and $85 to the skunk catcher)

    And secondly, how long till the smell goes away?

  • dedsetmad

    We don’t have skunks in Australia. The closest thing we have is the Tasmanian Devil. I wish we had skunks…they can come here if they like…I would welcome them.

  • Coolman

    skunks rool

  • Phyllis Bauer

    I have seen this special twice, and have helped a friend raise 4 infant skunks to the foraging age for a local animal rehab center. This week I have had a skunk visitor to my deck, twice, in the early evening. But I don’t smell any of the ususal perfume anywhere about the deck or garden. It is a large, beautiful skunk, but I am puzzled about the lack of odor!

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