Upon first seeing the elusive eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius), many people are surprised by its small size, which is typically not much larger than a tree squirrel. Spotted skunks, compared to their larger cousin the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis), are more agile and better climbers earning them the nickname tree or weasel skunk. Spotted skunks are nocturnal omnivores eating insects, small mammals, birds, eggs, carrion, berries, and fungi. When threatened, they perform a foot-stomping handstand dance that exaggerates their size and shows off their black and white warning coloration. If this display does not deter the attacker, then the skunk uses its anal glands to spray noxious oil which can cause temporary blindness and nausea.
During the early 20th century, eastern spotted skunks were a common and important furbearer across their range throughout most of central and southeastern United States. However, since the 1940s this species has experienced widespread population declines. While the exact reasons for their range-wide decline is unknown, a variety of possible mechanisms are suspected including anthropogenic factors such as habitat loss, pesticide use, and overharvesting. Diseases such as rabies, distemper, or an unknown parvovirus could have also contributed to a reduction in numbers.
In Alabama, little is known about the biology and current status of the eastern spotted skunk. Only a few recent confirmed sightings of spotted skunks are documented in the state and no research studies or surveys have been conducted. Eastern spotted skunks are a state protected species of high conservation concern. Recently, researchers at the University of West Georgia headed by Dr. Andrew Edelman documented the first known population of eastern spotted skunks in Alabama's Talladega National Forest. Preliminary tracking of radio-collared skunks at Talladega National Forest suggest that individuals are using forested areas with closed canopies and high stem densities, similar to populations in other states. Like many public lands across the southeastern U.S., prescribed fire and mechanical thinning are being used at Talladega National Forest to restor longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) forests for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis). Further research is needed to understand how these forest management practices could impact demographics and habitat use of eastern spotted skunks in Alabama.
With support from this endangered species grant, Dr. Edelman's research group is expanding their radio-tracking study at Talladega National Forest. The objective of this project is to obtain habitat use and survivorship data on the eastern spotted skunk that will assist Alabama in more effectively managing this state-protected species. Specifically, researchers will examine habitat selection at several spatial scales including home range and den site. They also plan to document survivorship patterns and causes of mortality for this population. This study will help contribute to the long-term management goal of recovering this small furbearer as a trappable species in Alabama.
Report a Sighting
If you see an Eastern spotted skunk, the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries wants to know about it. Report any sightings from roadkill, game cameras or inadvertent catch from fur trapping (The harvest of spotted skunks is now prohibited due to its conservation status).
■ Upload your observations to the Eastern Spotted Skunk project at www.inaturalist.org/projects/eastern-spotted-skunk or use the iNaturalist smartphone app, available for Android and iPhone.