Striped skunk Mephitis mephitis (Schreber)

Description:   The striped skunk is probably the best known and most frequently encountered member of its family in Kansas. It can be distinguished by: 1) rather heavy body, 2) short legs, the hind limbs appearing longer than the forelimbs, 3) front toes equipped with long, recurved claws while the rear toes have short, straight claws, 4) long, glossy black fur which covers the entire animal except for a white stripe from the tip of the nose to the forehead, and a white patch on back of the head which extends to the shoulders as a single stripe and then divides into two lines of variable length, and 5) a long, bushy, black tail usually tipped by white hairs.

Size:   Adults may attain the following dimensions: total length 560-795 mm; tail 190-295 mm; hind foot 54-89 mm; ear 25-35 mm; weight 1.8 to 4.1 kilograms. Males are larger than females.

Range and Habitat:   The striped skunk ranges throughout Kansas. It tolerates an array of habitats, but is most common in mixed woodland and grassland habitats such as forest edges, fence rows, wooded ravines and rocky outcrops. Populations tend to be low in arid regions and in large tracts of mature forest or moist vegetation where the water table is within 0.6 to 0.9 meters of the surface.

  There are three subspecies in Kansas, Mephitis mephitis avia Bangs in northeastern Kansas south to Anderson County and west to Harvey County (circles), Mephitis mephitis mesomelas Lichtenstein in southeast Kansas north to greenwood County and west to Sedgwick County (squares), and Mephitis mephitis varians Gray in the western two-thirds of the state (triangles).

Reproduction:   The striped skunk breeds in late February and early March, when males compete with each other for receptive females. females are receptive for only a short time, and if they do not become pregnant may have a second estrous in late March. Gestation varies from 62 to 75 (average 63) days. Litters range from four to eleven (usually six to seven) kittens. The kittens are born sparsely-haired with their eyes and ears closed, and weigh about 30 to 35 grams. Their ears open three or four weeks after birth, and their eyes open by the fourth to fifth week. Their anal scent glands contain musk at birth, but kittens do not develop control of them until they are two or three weeks old. They begin to eat solid food at about six or seven weeks, and leave the den with the female on foraging trips at about eight weeks. The kittens are weaned at eight to ten weeks, and disperse from the burrow when they are 12 to 14 weeks old, usually moving only a short distance (0.5 to 1.0 kilometers) to find a suitable denning site. Females are capable of breeding at ten months of age.

Habits:   Striped skunks are primarily nocturnal, becoming active shortly after sundown, foraging throughout the night and returning to their dens prior to sunrise. They are occasionally active during daylight hours, especially during overcast winter days.

:  Striped skunks do not hibernate, but during cold weather may spend considerable time in their dens. During winter and early spring, striped skunks utilize much of the body fat they accumulate during summer and autumn. Although usually solitary, they may share winter dens with up to 10 other individuals.

  Dens are frequently located on hillsides, along edges of woodlands, under rock outcrops, or along fence rows. The dens usually have one or two entrances to a single tunnel, and a nest area 0.5 to 1.5 meters below the ground. Striped skunks often modify and use badger dens and abandoned woodchuck or fox burrows.

  Nightly movements by striped skunks vary with the age and sex of the individual, and the habitat and time of year. Generally, they range over an area of approximately 1.6 to 2.4 square kilometers. Males have larger home ranges than females; if they find an abundant food supply they will repeatedly return to the site. Juveniles often forage within 0.8 kilometers of their nest. Pregnant females reduce their movements before the kittens are born, and probably move no farther than 0.4 kilometers from their dens.

Food:   The striped skunk has a diet which varies between localities and throughout the year, although they tend to carnivory, and insects are their usual mainstay. They are also known to eat rats, mice, carrion, birds, bird eggs, turtle eggs, frogs, crayfish, spiders, earthworms, corn, and wild fruits and berries.

Remarks:   Striped skunks are probably best known for their ability to spray musk when they feel threatened. The musk, stored in a pair of glands on either side of the anus, is sprayed through openings everted from the anus by a voluntary contraction of muscles. The musk can be expelled either as a fine mist or as a spray of droplets, and is usually directed through the air in an arc of 3 to 45 degrees. Striped skunks are reported to spray accurately up to 3.7 meters. The musk glands contain enough musk for five or six sprays, and the glands refill within one week. Exposure to the musk may cause nausea, swelling of the nose lining and eye irritation. In severe cases it may cause temporary visual impairment, but does not result in permanent blindness.

  Striped skunks appear to be one of the major reservoirs for rabies in wild animal populations. Between 1971 and 1973 skunks accounted for 73 to 90 per cent of the cases of animals rabies in Kansas, although only a few of the skunks in a population actually carry rabies. Rabies sometimes remains in a latent from in skunks, only to become reactivated later. Thus, apparently normal animals may harbor rabies virus. Wild-caught striped skunks, regardless of their age, should never be kept as pets, and care should be exercised around them.

  Great horned owls are the major predators of striped skunks, although other carnivores such as coyotes, foxes, badgers and bobcats occasionally feed on them.

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