The Scarcity of Spotted Skunks

Everyone knows what a striped skunk looks (and smells) like. Their reputation precedes them. Around this time of year, they like to hunker down in their dens inside of rock openings or hollow logs. They’ll spend most of their time in these dens until May and June when females give birth to their litter of “kits”. When they do come out to find food, they dig for protein-rich insects and worms, and will also eat plants during the summer.

A stripped skunk

A stripped skunk captured on a Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera.

The striped skunk’s smaller cousin, the eastern spotted skunk, is a much rarer sight. Spotted skunks were historically found in the southwestern part of Wisconsin, but their range was primarily across the western plains states and some southern states. They are similar in size to a gray squirrel, and have a distinctive white, upside-down triangle on their foreheads. Their preferred habitat is near open prairies and brushy areas at the edges of woodlands.

A spotted skunk and striped skunk side by side

Graphic created by Sheri Amsel, http://www.exploringnature.org

In addition to spraying perceived threats with a smelly musk, eastern spotted skunks also have an unusual defense behavior. They will do a handstand on their front legs and stick their tail straight up in the air when threatened. They will also stomp the ground with their front paws.

Spotted Skunk Handstand

Spotted skunk performing its defensive handstand. Photo by Holly Agnieszka Bacal, labeled for public use.

The spotted skunk is so rare in Wisconsin that there hasn’t been a confirmed sighting in the state for decades. But it’s not just Wisconsin that they’ve disappeared from. Spotted skunks have been in decline across their entire range for the past century. A study done by Gompper and Hackett in 20051 found that harvest records from the 1980s showed the eastern spotted skunk had declined to less than 1% of what their population had been at the start of the 1900s. We know so little about spotted skunks that their causes of decline are unknown, but hypotheses include habitat loss, pesticide use, overharvesting, and disease1-4.

Spotted Skunk by a Log

An eastern spotted skunk near a log. Photo by Holly Kuchera, labeled for public use.

A group of concerned scientists have banded together to begin learning more about spotted skunks and to promote their conservation. The Eastern Spotted Skunk Cooperative Study Group is comprised of 140 wildlife biologists across dozens of state and federal agencies, universities, and tribal nations. In 2018, they authored a conservation plan for the species with the goal of summarizing what is already known about spotted skunks and identifying areas that need further research.

According to the group’s conservation plan, management of spotted skunks vary by state. Some states recognize spotted skunks as furbearers and allow hunting and trapping of the species, while other states do not. One of the spotted skunk sub-species that lives in the plains is currently under review for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

In the state of Wisconsin, spotted skunks are recognized as rare and the DNR asks that sightings be reported to the Natural Heritage Inventory Form. A photo is necessary to confirm a sighting, so make sure you snap a picture if you suspect you’ve stumbled upon one. Just make sure to give it space if you see it doing a headstand!

Peer-reviewed articles:
1. Gompper, M.E., and H.M. Hackett. 2005. The long-term, range-wide decline of a once common carnivore: The eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius). Animal Conservation 8:195– 201.
2. Choate, J. R., E. D. Fleharty, and R. J. Little. 1974. Status of the spotted skunk, Spilogale putorius, in Kansas. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 76:226-233.
3. McCullough, C.R. 1983. Population status and habitat requirements of the eastern spotted skunk on the Ozark Plateau. M.S. Thesis. University of Missouri, Columbia. 60 pp.
4. Schwartz, C.W., and E.R. Schwartz. 2001. The Wild Mammals of Missouri. Second Edition. University of Missouri Press, Columbia. 392 pp.

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