The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, February 23, 2003

Naturally Texas
Hog-nosed Skunks Are Subjects of Local Study
Terry Maxwell, February 23, 2003, San Angelo Standard Times

If you’ve driven Texas byways during the past month, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the delicate fragrance of mercapton wafting about the roadside. Mercapton is the stink agent in skunk spray. The question, whether it has occurred to you are not, is "What are we to make of this increase in flattened skunks?"

You might assume, as did one Brownwood journalist who recently contacted me, that we’re in an epidemic of skunks. Since rabies can be a problem in skunks, any increase in their population might alarm you. The evidence, however, points to another cause for the plethora of skunks. I recommend that you survey the sex of the next ten dead skunks you encounter. Stop the car and get out, pick up a stick and flip the animal over. A cursory examination of its anatomy will likely reveal it to be a male – as are most roadkill skunks in this season.

It’s the breeding season. Romance is in the air, so to speak, and bull skunks are notoriously poor at avoiding cars as they meander about in search of the fairer sex. Let me clarify just how slow they move. Naturalist Brush Freeman, recently having driven 170 miles from Utley (Bastrop County) to Port O’Connor on the coast, counted 42 dead on the road. My colleague in Biology at ASU, Dr. Robert Dowler, counted 30 between San Antonio and San Angelo. Ann and I observed a startling 46 on U.S. 277 between Abilene and San Angelo a little over a week ago.
In the San Angelo vicinity, there occur 3 species of skunks, but only two are regularly roadkill. The more common by far is the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis), but the one I want to introduce today is the more interesting – the western hog-nosed skunk (Conepatus mesoleucus).

In fact, the history of the Conepatus skunks in Texas is cause for some concern. Two species occur in our state. Our own western hog-nosed skunk occurs from Central Texas west to Arizona and south to Nicaragua – a widespread species. Vernon Bailey, the legendary student of Texas mammals at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, described a geographically separate race of this skunk in the Big Thicket of East Texas – an animal he called the "swamp conepatus." It was the most common skunk that Bailey and his field men trapped in that area. It was not seen again until a roadkill was found in 1961, but despite intense investigation none have been seen since. It’s likely that the swamp Conepatus is extinct.

The largest skunk in Texas is the eastern hog-nosed skunk (Conepatus leuconotus), known only on the coastal plain from Corpus Christi south to Veracruz, Mexico. It has become very rare in the past half century and warrants concern.

Our own western hog-nosed skunk remains fairly common although fewer of it are seen than the commonplace striped skunk. Because it is encountered here about as frequently as anywhere in Texas and because ASU has a mammalogy graduate program of note, Dowler has received funding from Texas Parks and Wildlife for a two-year study of local skunks, concentrating on the hog-nosed.

There has developed in our Biology Department a veteran skunk corps of graduate students and undergraduates. And lest you worry about them, they’re all vaccinated against rabies. I’ve lost count of the number of skunk projects being conducted by these students, but I intend to get up to date and report back to you – it’s fascinating stuff.

We’re about out of space here today, so all I can do now is inspire you to catch the next installment. To learn some particular things about these animals you have to follow them around. But that’s hard to do with nocturnal skunks, so the trick is to attach radios to them and track them with antennas. The skunk corps, however, discovered a problem – isn’t that always the case? Hog-nosed skunks are hard to live trap. There is a solution, though - one that likely did not occur to you.

Hog-nosed skunk catching works as follows: (1) load up a pickup with eager skunk corps sprinters, (2) drive ranch roads (those with owner permission) at night and shine spotlights into the brush, (3) when a skunk is spotted, brake the truck, and (4) observe with wonder as two or three people jump from the truck and dash pell mell into the brush after a now thoroughly alarmed animal with a famous defense system.

One of three outcomes is usual in these rodeos: (1) the skunk gets away, (2) the skunk is caught by a sprayed sprinter, or, preferably (3) the skunk is snatched by the tail before spraying. In any of these cases, the evening is sure to be memorable.

Skunks play a major role in the ecology of our countryside, and an understanding of how things work out there includes coming to understand them. But I assume you have an intuitive grip on why most naturalists have avoided investigating these important animals.

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