History of rare skunks has MDC's attention

Friday, December 13, 2002

If someone described to you a black and white mammal up to 2 feet long with a long tail and an unpleasant odor, you might right away assume the person is describing a striped skunk.

Actually there are two mammals in Missouri that fit this description.

The spotted skunk, more commonly called "civet cat" among Missourians, also fits the description. Spotted skunks are smaller than striped skunks. They weigh up to 3 pounds while striped skunks typically weigh 3 to 11 pounds.

The color pattern on spotted skunks differs from the striped skunk. Spotted skunks have a white spot on the forehead and one in front of each ear. Four white stripes are along the neck, back and sides that extend from the head to the middle of the body. White stripes with somewhat connected spots occur on the back end of the spotted skunk. The tail is typically all black.

A striped skunk has a thin white stripe down the center of the face and a broad white stripe beginning on the back of the head, forking on the shoulders (into two stripes), and continuing all the way to the tail.

If you rarely see skunks, there is a good reason. Both the striped skunk and the spotted skunk are nocturnal and active mostly at night. They spend the day inside a den and come out at night for food. Skunks choose dens that are dry, offer protection from the weather and protection from predators. Natural homes for the spotted skunk include hollows in grassy banks and rocky crevices. However, spotted skunks are accustomed to human activity and will use fence rows, farm buildings, wells with rock walls, and grain elevators as denning sites.

The spotted skunks eat both plant and animal foods, although the majority of their diet are animals like rodents and large insects. They eat grasshoppers, crickets, ground beetles and scarab beetles. Mice are a staple food, especially in the winter.

Striped skunks once were trapped legally for their pelts. The fur was used for jackets and coat trimming. In the 1940s there were 18,000 spotted skunks harvested per year in Missouri. During the 1950s to '70s, fewer than 1,000 spotted skunks were harvested. By the late '80s it had dwindled to a harvest of one a year. In 1991 spotted skunks were listed as state endangered and were no longer legal to trap. The striped skunk may still be trapped in Missouri.

Where have the spotted skunks gone? Land use changes probably account for much of the change in population size. There are fewer acres of agricultural land. Small farms have been converted to large farms; harvest practices are cleaner; hedgerows have been removed on much agricultural land.

Because of their decline, the Missouri Department of Conservation is conducting a survey to learn more about the status and distribution of the spotted skunk in Missouri. The survey runs through April. We ask that anyone who has seen a spotted skunk since 1960 report their sightings to us. If you have seen a spotted skunk -- dead or alive -- please contact us to provide accurate location information. Also, because striped skunks can be mistaken for spotted skunks (particularly a mangled roadkill), we appreciate receiving a photograph with the sighting report whenever possible.

A toll-free number (888-571-1042) is available to report spotted skunk sightings.

Janeen Laatsch is a natural history regional biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

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