It has a weirdly bare snout, but the eastern hognosed skunk still has the black and white uniform and violent stench-spray of its relatives. It’s so pungent that, when we realised skunks weren’t part of the badger family Mustelidae, we gave them a name from the Latin for “bad odour” – Mephitidae.
The charming contents of said spray can vary with species, but it’s usually sulphur compounds like thiols and thioacetates – hence the raging undead bouquet of rotten eggs, garlic and burnt rubber. Unlucky humans can escape via a normal shower, but thanks to a fun combination of damp fur and thiols, water exacerbates it in other animals, so doggy bath-time would be a mix of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and detergent. Just don’t bottle it, or the oxygen build-up can make it explode. Chemistry lesson over, let’s look at the why and the how.
Spray and pray
Skunks will deploy a delightful vapour trail of stink as they run from predators like coyotes, badgers (sorry cuz!) or golden eagles, or stop and fire with a precision aim of up to 3 metres (10ft). How? With two words that will likely haunt you for the rest of the day, or pop into your head later at wildly inappropriate moments during funerals, weddings, or video conference calls. And those two words are: bum nipples.
Skunks have highly developed anal scent glands, and these “nipples” are how they aim and discharge their diabolical weapon. But don’t worry – the eastern hognosed skunk isn’t trigger-happy.
Not so black and white
If agitated, it will give you fair warning by rearing up and smashing down on its front paws with a vicious hiss. It tends to avoid the company of humans anyway, even before you’ve annoyed it.
Mostly nocturnal, it’s rarely seen and we don’t know much about it. Most information is inferred from its relative the – wait for it – western hognosed skunk, which is considered the same species by some. Otherwise, our most effective study method is roadkill. (The accidental kind, you monster.)
Unlike other skunks, the eastern hognosed enjoys feasting on bugs more than anything else, so the usual meat-baited traps don’t work. This makes it a friend of the farmers as it helps keep pests down. On the other hand, pesticides are one of its worst enemies, and it’s still hunted for fur or fun in some of its ranges from Texas to Mexico. Rabies is something else its spray can’t protect it from. But it can usually handle itself solo.
Odour-able on its own
Skunks only really mix while mating, and Mum takes sole care of the 2-4 kits she pops out yearly. A group of skunks is known as a “surfeit”, but that remains hypothetical because on top of a solitary lifestyle and hunting, habitat loss and competition with feral hogs, the eastern hognosed skunk is unlikely to be seen in large groups. That’s a shame, because who wouldn’t want an army of fluffy animals that fight by annoying and disgusting their enemy?
Latin: Conepatus leuconotus
What? Large North American skunk with a big white blaze stripe, no bar between its eyes and a bare “hog-like” snout
Where? Southeast Texas and eastern Mexico
How big? 70-80 cm / 27-31 inches long, with a tail of 20-41 cm / 7.8-16 inches
Endangered? Currently Least Concern, although it may be declining overall.
Probable motto: I hurt your pride in self defence.
They look cute. Do they need my help at all?
Eastern hognosed skunks are listed as Least Concern at the moment, but are still threatened by loss of habitat, competition with feral hogs and pesticides. There are no current conservation campaigns, but its endangered status may be reviewed in future.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
“American hognosed skunk“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Bradford, Alina. 2016. “Facts about skunks“. LiveScience.
Cosier, Susan. 2006. “Is it true that tomato sauce will get rid of the smell of a skunk?” Science Line.
Dohring, Alice. No date. “Conepatus leuconotus leuconotus – eastern hognosed skunk“. Animal Diversity Web.
Dragoo, Jerry. No date. “Skunks“. Britannica.com.
“Eastern hog-nosed skunk“. No date. The Mammals of Texas – Online Edition.
Meaney, Carron A. et. al. 2006. “American Hog-nosed Skunk (Conepatus leuconotus): A Technical Conservation Assessment”. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region.
Means, Charlotte. 2013. “Skunk spray toxicosis: An odiferous tale“. dvm360.com.
Featured image credit: Common hog-nosed skunk, (Conepatus leuconotus), © Robby Deans