Say hello to hand-held spotted skunks, ‘the acrobats of the skunk world’

Meet spotted skunks, ‘the acrobats of the skunk world’. Scientists have found that there are more of these species than they thought, new research shows.

More recently, the agreed number was four. But a new study published Wednesday in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution said there are seven spotted skunk species.

“North America is one of the most studied continents in terms of mammals, and carnivores are one of the most studied groups,” said study author Adam Ferguson, Negaunee mammal collection manager at the Field Museum in Chicago. “Everyone thinks we know all about mammalian carnivores systematics, so it’s very exciting to redraw the skunk family tree.”

Spotted skunks are the smaller relatives of the common striped skunk. These elusive carnivores are about the size of a squirrel and live in North America. And when it’s time to deter a predator, these little guys perform a handstand and kick out their hind legs.

“When stressed, they bounce on their front legs and then kick out their hind legs, inflate their tails, and they may even walk up to the predator, as if they’re basically making them look bigger and scarier,” Ferguson said.

The skunks usually fall back on all fours to aim deadly and control their foul-smelling spray. Their small stature also doesn’t make these creatures shy from a fight.

A study released in 2013 included a video of a western spotted skunk standing by hand and facing a mountain lion over a deer carcass. For reference, spotted skunks typically weigh less than 2 pounds (0.9 kilograms).

It’s just another example of their audacity, something he admires about skunks in general, Ferguson said.

While the common striped skunk has made its presence known in urban areas, as well as in its natural habitat, striped skunks have not made the same advances and thus remain largely out of sight. These “ecologically cryptic” creatures live in dense environments and remote areas and appear to be less adaptable to urbanization than their larger, striped counterparts, Ferguson said.

Given their agility, spotted skunks are great climbers, and they are much more carnivorous than other skunks, feeding on bird eggs, lizards, snakes, and rodents. Great horned owls are their main predator.

The fact that spotted skunks are so good at keeping them inconspicuous makes them more difficult to study. Ever since the discovery of the first spotted skunk in 1758, scientists have wondered how many species exist. Over the years, the observed differences between some spotted skunks have led researchers to believe there were only two species and as many as 14.

Establishing that there are seven species came down to analyzing genetic data from spotted skunks. But first, Ferguson needed specimens to study. Catching skunks isn’t the easiest job — Ferguson and his colleagues made six trips to Mexico while researching spotted skunks and never caught one. And if you do catch one, you’re sure to get sprayed.

“We call it the smell of success because it means we’ve encountered one, which is the ultimate goal,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson was inspired to create and distribute “wanted” posters in central Texas in feed stores and areas where ranchers and trappers operate. The posters described the need for spotted skunks that may have been trapped or found as road deaths and showed photos of the creatures. The researchers offered to collect the skunk specimens and store them in a designated “skunk freezer.”

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The researchers also relied on specimens in museum collections, including spotted skunks found in Central America and Yucatan. In the end, they had 203 spotted skunks to use for researching and extracting DNA. The genetic data showed that some skunks, once considered the same species, were in fact very different.

“I was able to extract DNA from ancient museum samples, and it was really exciting to see who those individuals were related to. It turned out that one of them was a currently unrecognized, endemic species in Yucatan,” said study author Molly McDonough, a biology professor at Chicago State University and research associate at the Field Museum, said in a statement.

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One of the new species from the study is the Yucatan spotted skunk, which is about the size of a squirrel and is found only on the Yucatan Peninsula. The scientists also describe the Plains spotted skunk, whose population has declined over the past century and has been suggested as an endangered species.

“The study wouldn’t have been possible without the museum specimens we had,” Ferguson said. “The only reason we could get sequences from Yucatan was museum specimens collected 60 or 70 years ago.”

Understanding individual species of skunks could help scientists learn about something unique to these creatures: their reproductive biology. Spotted skunks can breed in the fall, but they don’t give birth until the spring. In other words, their reproductive system purposely delays the implantation of the egg in the uterus.

Adam Ferguson (far left) and guests are pictured in the Field Museum's collections of spotted skunk specimens.

“It’s just been in the suspension for a while,” Ferguson said. “We want to know why some species have delayed implantation and others have not, and figuring out how these different species of skunk have evolved can help us do that.”

Skunks have come a long way since they first appeared in the fossil record 25 million years ago, evolving and splitting into different species by responding to the climate change brought on by the Ice Age.

Knowing more about spotted skunks can also help conserve these animals. Skunks have their own roles to play within the ecosystem, consuming fruits and defecating seeds that aid in plant dispersal, as well as hunting pests and rodents, Ferguson said.

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