The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, March 02, 2003

Naturally Texas
Hog-nosed Skunks Are Dietary Specialists
Terry Maxwell, March 2, 2003, San Angelo Standard Times, © 2003

In my long career as a biologist, I have met some men (never women) that were notable dietary generalists. I see no reason to doubt that there are such women – I just never met any. In our technical vocabulary, a dietary generalist is eurytrophic (eury = broad, trophic = feeding).

In particular, I recall Dr. Irby Davis, a Texas game-bird biologist of some renown. At one point in his career, Davis worked with doves and was attending a conference in Tamaulipas, Mexico concerning white-winged dove nesting colonies that were crop pests. Since white-wings were a major economic force in the regional sport hunting scene, it was clearly to everyone’s advantage to solve this peskiness with regard to grain crop depredation. Enter Dr. Davis, or so the story goes.

At the conference, a field trip was taken to a white-winged dove nesting colony – one of those remarkable aggregations of several thousand pairs. A local farmer inquired of the biologists the progress of nesting – When could one expect the now present eggs to hatch? As the legend goes, Dr. Davis reached upward into a dove nest, extracted an egg, popped it into his mouth, crunched it, smacked his lips and responded – "Oh, about 10 days I should think." I desperately hope that widely-told story is true.

Along those same lines, my former graduate student at Angelo State University, Mike Husak had the habit of supplementing his otherwise normal diet with arthropods he encountered in the field. While studying golden-fronted woodpeckers for his master’s degree thesis, Mike would often sample the local living fauna for new flavors. He claimed to enjoy grasshoppers (sans legs, of course) and absolutely relish the tangy citrus-like bouquet of ants.

On the other hand, Ann and I know a sports announcer whose entire diet consists of little more than fried chicken and cheese. Such a limited diet is referred to as stenotrophic (steno = narrow).
Enough of that - I should let this extended introduction actually lead to something useful to a nature column. You remember that last week we began the subject of skunks, and I confessed to a fondness for hog-nosed skunks. Well, western hog-nosed skunks are in warmer months fairly stenotrophic – much more so than Mike Husak or Irby Davis.

Despite its larger size than other local skunks, hog-nosed skunks have a taste for small things – insects. In particular, they like ground beetles and their larvae. A study of this species in Central Texas, as reported by Davis and Schmidly in the MAMMALS OF TEXAS, found that insects (including beetles), arachnids (such as spiders and scorpions), and snails constituted anywhere from 56 percent to 94 percent of their diet, depending on the season.

Hog-nosed skunks sport some physical adaptations that support their insect-eating habit. Although all skunks have longer claws on their front feet than on their hind feet, the difference is exaggerated in hog-nosed skunks. With these long claws they dig for beetles and other insect prey.

But certainly the most notable feature of this skunk is its long, flexible nose. Apparently, it uses that appendage to root (like a hog) in the ground. My suspicion is that you have seen sign of their rooting without guessing the responsible animal. I used to think that plowed ground around prickly pear cactus plants was due entirely to armadillos, but now I suspect that it is mostly the activity of hog-nosed or what some folks call "rooter" skunks.

Vernon Bailey, in his turn of the 19th to 20th century mammal survey of Texas, found this skunk quite difficult to trap. And nothing seems to have changed in the last one hundred years. The ASU Biology Department student skunk corps have mostly resorted to hand-catching this animal, as I reported to you last week.

Fresh eggs, cat food, sardines, or meat work well to bait live traps for striped skunks, but hog-noses apparently prefer their own personally-rooted beetles. Bailey shot one skunk at night that had a stomach filled with several hundred of "these crisp juicy beetles." Such a discriminating taste would, I think, be well appreciated by Davis and Husak.

Bon appetit.


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