Photo Credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Mephitis mephitis
STATUS: Found statewide, especially in open areas, forest edges, and urban habitats. Although usually common, abundance varies within Alabama; some regions have high populations and others having few, or no, individuals present. Low Conservation Concern.
DESCRIPTION: Striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis) are the largest of the skunk species and have long stocky bodies on short thick legs with powerful claws. The head is small and elongated with small eyes and small rounded ears. They cannot see very well, but have excellent hearing. Weight varies from six to 14 pounds, while length varies from 20 to 31 inches, excluding the tail which varies from seven to 16 inches. Striped skunks are typically black with two white stripes extending from the base of the neck down the back to the tail. Often the tail has two white stripes, but occasionally is just a mix of white and black hairs without a distinct pattern. The top of the head sports a white cap, while a white stripe runs from the nose to the forehead. Skunks are boldly patterned to advertise to potential enemies that they are to be left alone. However coloration can vary drastically, from almost black to almost white. The most notorious feature of the striped skunk is the scent glands that produce a fowl smelling yellowish musk. The spray can reach 12 to 15 feet, and the odor can be detected up to a mile. The musk is actually used as a base for perfumes.
DISTRIBUTION: Striped skunks are found only in North America. Their range extends from northern Mexico to central Canada. They are found throughout Alabama, but are more common in north Alabama.
HABITAT: The striped skunk lives in a variety of habitats. It prefers open areas with a mixture of woodlands. It is seldom found more than two miles from a water source.
FEEDING HABITS: Striped skunks are omnivorous, feeding on both meat and plants. They are very opportunistic feeders and have a diet consisting of grubs, insects, small mammals, fish, fruits, crayfish, eggs, carrion (dead animals) and anything else it can find. The striped skunk gorges itself in the fall in preparation for a lean winter.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Striped skunks are normally solitary animals. They are nocturnal, usually active only at night and sleeping by day in underground burrows. The typical life span is two years. Mating season is from mid-February to mid-March. The gestation period lasts eight to nine weeks and a litter of four to 11 young are born blind and helpless. The baby skunks are called “kittens.” At three weeks, their eyes open and at eight weeks, they are weaned. In about 14 weeks the young begin to disperse and live on their own. The striped skunk has few natural predators. The great horned owl is the major predator. Other predators include hawks, coyotes, foxes and bobcats, but the repulsive spray will deter most predation. The classic black with white stripes is a warning to most predators to leave the striped skunk alone. If this does not work, the skunk will chatter its teeth, stamp its feet or even bluff a charge to scare away predators. If this fails the skunk will, as a last resort, spray with a disgustingly sick-smelling musk that can temporarily blind the attacker while the striped skunk makes a get-away.
Nowak, Ronald M. Walker’s Mammals of the World: Volume 1. Baltimore: The John’s Hopkins U University Press, 1999.
Wilson, Don E., and DeeAnn M. Reeder. Mammal Species of the World. Washington: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1993.
AUTHOR: Jim Schrenkel, Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife & Freshwater Fisheries