Some animals command more attention than others. Large charismatic critters seem to grab all the headlines and attention while small unassuming critters go completely unnoticed.
The eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius) is one of those small animals you’ve never seen, or perhaps even heard of.
No doubt most people are familiar with the stripped skunk (Mephitis mephitis). This is the common skunk that is seen throughout the entire country and well up into Canada. In the western states, some may be familiar with the western spotted skunk because it can be fairly common. But the eastern spotted skunk remains a mystery to most people in the eastern half of the country.
The spotted skunk is a tiny critter. It’s a fraction of the size of the more familiar stripped skunk. It weighs only 1-1.5 pounds, compared to the hefty 10-12 pounds of the stripped skunk. The spotted skunk is only 13-15 inches long, including tail. The stripped skunk is 20-30 inches including the tail.
When you see a spotted skunk, one of the first things that pops into your mind is, “Wow. That’s a small skunk.” The second thing you might wonder is “Is that a baby skunk?”
Its common name comes from the four stripes on its back that are broken up into a spotted pattern, giving it a “spotted” appearance. The tail on the spotted skunk is small and less fuzzy than the stripped skunk.
I’ve had a fair amount of experience with western spotted skunks. Years ago I was working on several field guides for mammals and captured many western spotted skunks. But the eastern spotted skunk has remained elusive. In the early 1900s, the eastern spotted skunk was fairly common and found throughout the eastern half of the country. They were so common that tens of thousands were trapped each season. This lasted until the 1950s and 1960s when their population suddenly declined.
By the 1970s and 1980s, they were all but gone. Some states such as Wisconsin and Minnesota were reporting less than 20 individual skunks, despite intensive efforts to locate the little spotted skunk. By the 1990s, it was no longer found in most of the Upper Midwest.
Unfortunately the spotted skunk is declining in population all across the U.S., not just in the Upper Midwest. The only place where it might be hanging on today is in southern Florida. I spend lots of time in that part of Florida and I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a roadkill spotted skunk or seen one running around in the wild.
The spotted skunk is a fairly social animal that doesn’t hold a specific territory. Instead, they wander around from place to place looking for shelter and something to eat. They move from den site to den site night after night.
Being nocturnal, they often go undetected by the average person. They are good at climbing trees and are shy and retreat from people. When threatened by a predator they do the most amazing thing. They do a hand stand with their back legs spread wide like a gymnast. This way they can both see and aim their bottom at the same time at a predator. Just like other skunks they give a warning before firing away.
They have incredible accuracy and can hit their target upwards of 10 feet away with a stinky oil that smells very similar to the more familiar stripped skunk. This is usually enough to make any predator back off and stay away.
In addition to doing handstands before spraying, the skunks will also stomp their feet on the ground if it’s approached. This should be a clear sign to back off. The stamping can be hear from a good distance. So if you see one of these little guys look for these warning signs before investigating.
Mothers give birth to young in the spring to early summer. They often have upward of five young. The young need to be 10-12 weeks old before they are fully equipped to defend themselves with the stinky spray.
It would be very special to see some of these little stinkers in the wild. Keep an eye out for them and contact your local wildlife authorities with your sightings.