skunk, name for several related New World mammals of the weasel family, characterized by their conspicuous black and white markings and use of a strong, highly offensive odor for defense. The scent glands of skunks produce an oily, yellowish liquid, which the animal squirts with great force from vents under the tail; this produces a fine mist which, in addition to stinking, causes choking and tearing of the eyes. Skunks do not make use of this weapon unless severely provoked and then only after raising the tail in a warning display. Most animals quickly learn to recognize and avoid skunks, which are consequently quite fearless and move about openly. The two common skunks of the United States, the striped skunk and the spotted skunk, are nocturnal animals; their diets include rodents, insects, eggs, carrion, and vegetable matter. They live, often several individuals or families together, in dens made in abandoned burrows or buildings or in rock piles. Most familiar is the striped skunk, Mephitis mephitis, of the United States, N Mexico, and Canada S of Hudson Bay. It has thick black fur, usually with two white stripes on the back. It is 13 to 18 in. (33–46 cm) long, excluding the bushy tail (7–10 in./18–25 cm), and weighs 6 to 14 lb (2.7–6.4 kg). Because it destroys pests, it is protected in many states. In northern parts of their range the animals sleep through much of the winter, but they do not truly hibernate and may emerge during warm spells. The small, slender, spotted skunk, Spilogale putorius, has several irregular white stripes or lines of spots. It inhabits Mexico and the W, S, and central United States. Its combined head and body length is 9 to 13 in. (23–33 cm) and the tail is 4 to 9 in. (10–23 cm) long. This skunk balances on its front paws as part of its warning display. Central and South American skunks, species of the genus Conepatus, have white backs and tails and black underparts. Good diggers with large claws, they root in the ground for food. One species, the hognose skunk ( Conepatus leuconotus ), ranges as far north as the SW United States. Skunk fur, especially that of the striped skunk, is much used for coat trimmings. The animals are sometimes kept as pets, usually after having the scent glands removed. Skunks are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Carnivora, family Mustelidae.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.