March–April 2024

Minnesota Profile

Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis)

This mustelid is well known to most Minnesotans.

Jason Abraham

Ubiquitous, odiferous, and eminently identifiable, the striped skunk is well known to most Minnesotans. As members of the mustelid family of animals, skunks share the rounded ears and beady eyes of mink, river otter, badger, and weasel, but they are far from typical members of this family.

Habitat and Behavior. Unlike other mustelids, skunks have not retreated in the face of human habitation. They’re as populous as ever, happily living nocturnally alongside people in both rural and urban areas across the state. Although capable of making their own burrow, skunks often shelter in woodchuck dens, caves, hollow logs, and piles of wood or stone. The undersides of barns, sheds, cabins, homes, and garages are also common habitats—much to the consternation of their owners. In the wild, skunks tend to concentrate in areas that support mice, avoiding continuous closed-canopy forests and lowlands.

Scent Defense. While most mustelids have anal glands that produce strong-smelling secretions, skunks take it to the next level, unleashing a smell that’s unforgettable for anyone who has experienced it. Each of the skunk’s two scent glands contains enough fluid for five or six rounds of spray, which can be projected up to 10 feet without the aid of the wind. The golden-yellow fluid is expressed when the skunk is threatened, causing its target temporary blindness, choking, nausea, and even fainting. When emptied, the glands take about a week to completely refill.

Survival and Reproduction. Given their defense mechanism, skunks have few natural predators. One exception is large owls, like the great horned owl, which has little sense of smell and will feast on this putrid prey. Coyotes, fox, and domestic dogs will also kill skunks, but most will not do it repeatedly. Skunks in Minnesota den up to survive winter but emerge during warm periods. Breeding begins in late February and March, and the young are born in May. Litters typically range from four to six. The young are weaned in two months and disperse from their mother after three months.

Far and Away. Although they are known to be gentle and intelligent animals, skunks should be enjoyed only at a distance. That’s because in addition to their scent, they are also known to be among many animals that can carry rabies, a virus that spreads to humans through contact with an infected animal’s saliva.

Evolutionary Example. Its near-perfect protection from predators may be a clue to why the skunk is so different from other mustelids. With smelly glands and distinctive markings, the skunk is able to avoid predators, allowing it to evolve into a slow, stout, ponderous omnivore unworriedly living among us.