The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, March 16, 2003

A western spotted skunk performs
his handstand defense posture. If
you're this close, you're probably
going to get sprayed.

(art by Terry Maxwell)
Naturally Texas
Spotted Skunks Rarely Seen, But They Are Not Rare
Terry Maxwell, March 16, 2003, San Angelo Standard Times, © 2003

About 1970 in the parking lot behind the San Angelo Standard Times, smack downtown at about 1 a.m., I saw only the second civet cat that I ever had seen. My first was on the earthen dam of O.C. Fisher Reservoir when I was a rock-chunking kid, and that seems light years back.

Now, why should those observations be remembered or be of interest? Because I have spent a lifetime outdoors, and the animal turns out to not be as rare as my few encounters would indicate. In fact, Jeff Doty, a graduate student of biology at ASU, has live-captured and radio-collared 12 of them just within the past few months. A rancher friend in Irion County has caught several over the past few years.

So, why are sightings of this species so rare in comparison to the striped skunk or the western hog-nosed skunk? Before considering that question, I should point out that the so-called civet cat is a real skunk, not a cat in any way.

The spotted skunks of the genus Spilogale are composed of three species. In a small corner of southwestern Mexico can be found the diminutive pygmy skunk. The other two species (western and eastern spotted skunks) have been the subject of taxonomic debate in the U.S. where they mostly occur.

Some authorities consider them to be geographic variants (races) of one spotted skunk species. But they differ in important ways, perhaps most startlingly in a reproductive quirk of the western one (Spilogale gracilis), found in western Texas.

Western spotted skunks mate in early fall. Pregnancy or gestation lasts about a month - and pay careful attention here - the infants are born in April or May. Have you been counting months? Yes, well something's wrong then, right? For about seven months after mating, fertilized eggs don't develop - they're delayed from growing in the uterus. It's called delayed implantation. Eastern spotted skunks have pregnancies like ours - they don't do that delayed thing.

Spotted skunks are the smallest of skunks - the larger males are about one and half pounds.

Their white markings are complex, consisting of spots and broken stripes, bringing us back to that question of rarity of sightings. They are difficult to see at night. The striking jet black pelage with broken white striping is nearly impossible to distinguish from moonlight shadows. Apparently because of more strict nocturnality and preferred shrubby habitat, the animals are seldom observed by diurnal people.

One of the oft-told habits of this species is its response to danger. Spotted skunks stamp the front feet when threatened. If that doesn't work, they do a handstand - a moving handstand - perhaps to present a larger and more threatening appearance. They shuffle forward and backward while handstanding - probably a balancing act.

Unfortunately, I've never witnessed this remarkable behavior. Their last resort is to spray with what is widely considered to be the most obnoxiously scented spray of all skunk species.

What we know the least and what we need to know the most is the ecology of the species. If we are to understand its role in the countryside of our state, then we have a lot of field research ahead of us. Fortunately, the ASU skunk corps has a goal of gaining just that knowledge.

Two western spotted skunk research projects are in progress - den site selection and home range characteristics. Although those 12 radio-collared ones have been tracked and analyzed for home range size, the data at this point are too slight to reveal much with confidence. It is apparent now however that this species' home ranges overlap with striped skunks. The spotteds prefer denser woody plant growth than is required by the larger striped skunk.

More solid results are presently available on den site selection. Fifteen dens have been located and their environments described. They tend to den in areas with more large mesquite trees, denser shrubbery, more shade from tree canopy, and more prickly-pear cactus than is required by striped skunks. Fifty percent of the dens were in large prickly-pear cactus clumps, 20 percent in wood piles, and 10 percent in trees. Yes, trees. Spotted skunks, unlike all other skunks, are great tree climbers.

Spotted skunks are one of the secretive and almost legendary animals of our landscapes. That gives them an exotic-like appeal, but one that requires using the tools of scientific investigation to understand. Coming to more fully know this mammal can only be of benefit to its kind in a world increasingly adjusted to human wants.


At 2:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You refer to "light years back" and one would assume that you are making reference to a measure of time.....a light year is a measure of distance....not of time. I dont care where you are, you are NOT more than one light year from O.C. Fisher Reservoir.

Just keeping you accurate.
Nick Brown

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At 6:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I catch 2 or 3 a year in my fruit orchard, usually in the fall in live traps. They will crawl up large live oaks trees to get in live traps mounted on the trunks of the trees. Hays County, between Dripping Springs, Blanco, and Wimberley.

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