The New International Encyclopædia/Skunk

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SKUNK (from Abenaki seganku, Cree seecawk, skunk). A fur-bearing mammal of the genus Mephitis (or Chincha) of the weasel family (Mustelidæ), approaching the badgers in the lengthened claws of the fore feet, in the plantigrade hind feet, in dentition, and in habits. Skunks are found only in America, where they are distributed in many species from Northern Canada to Patagonia. All are animals of moderate size with long hair, bushy tails, and black and white markings. All have nocturnal habits, and are renowned for the excessive development of the anal glands, common to most of the family (see Badger, Polecat, etc.), from which an acrid, fetid discharge may be projected to a considerable distance. The best-known species to which the name ordinarily refers is the common skunk of Eastern North America (Mephitis mephitica), which is numerous from New England and Canada, nearly as far northwest as timber grows, to Florida and Texas. Its body is about 18 inches long and the tail about 9 inches, but considerable variation occurs, and females are always smaller.

Skunks are wholly terrestrial and live in dens and burrows, usually of their own excavation. They are sluggish in movement and usually show little fear of human beings. Although chiefly nocturnal, they are often seen moving about in the daytime. They hibernate only during the severest part of the winter. Five to seven young are born in May in the Northern States. Their food consists largely of mice, reptiles, insects, and birds' eggs, and they frequently become excessively fat, especially when grasshoppers are abundant. In many parts of the United States they destroy the ‘white grubs,’ a great pest in lawns and meadows. They occasionally rob the poultry yard, but these small depredations are more than offset by their destruction of noxious mammals and insects. Skunks have been extensively trapped for furs ever since the settlement of the country by white men, and attempts have been made to breed them in confinement, but, although ‘skunk farms’ have been started in several States, the industry has not flourished. The fur is sometimes sold under the name ‘Alaska sable.’ Apparently there is but one molt in a year, and this occurs in late summer or in autumn.

That which particularly distinguishes skunks from other animals is their means of defense, consisting of a characteristic malodorous fluid, which, when ejected, speedily discourages the boldest aggressor. The fluid is secreted by two anal glands similar in character to those possessed by other members of the Mustelidæ, but larger and more muscular. They lie one on each side of the rectum, and are imbedded in a dense, gizzard-like mass of muscle, which serves to compress them so forcibly that the contained fluid may be ejected to the distance of 15 feet. Each sac is furnished with a single duct that leads into a prominent, nipple-like papilla that is capable of being protruded from the anus, and by means of which the direction of the jet is governed. This liquid causes acute distress when in contact with mucous membrane, as, for example, the eyes. Another extraordinary feature of these animals is their tendency to canine rabies. It is popularly believed that they ‘go mad’ with a form of the disease peculiar to themselves, but an extensive investigation of the matter by Dr. Elliott Coues showed that the disease was doubtless canine rabies.

The skunks west of the plains are divided into several species, that of the coast of Great Basin being Mephitis occidentalis. In the Southern and Western United States and throughout Mexico occur also small ‘striped’ skunks of another genus (Spilogale) marked with four narrow stripes breaking into spots and cross-bars on the rump; these are called ‘zorillos’ in the Spanish-speaking countries. Still another well-known form is the ‘conepate,’ ‘mapurito,’ or white-backed skunk (Conepatus mapurito), which is found from Arizona throughout Central and South America.

Consult Coues, Fur-Bearing Animals (Washington, 1874), and the many authorities therein referred to; Merriam, “Mammals of the Adirondack Region,” in Transactions of the Linæan Society of New York, vol. i. (New York, 1882); Howell, “Revision of the Skunks of the Genus Chincha,” in North American Fauna, No. 20 (Department of Agriculture, Washington, 1901) ; Merriam, “Revision of the Genus Spilogale,” in North American Fauna, No. 4 (ib., 1890); Stone and Cram, American Animals (New York, 1902). See Plate of Minor Carnivores with Carnivora.