As It Happens

There's more to these acrobatic skunks than meets the eye

Spotted skunks are small, sneaky and exceedingly cute — and they stand on their hands before spraying you with their butts.

Spotted skunks, which do handstands before they spray, come in 7 distinct species

When a spotted skunk stands on its hands like this, watch out. That means it's about to spray. (Jerry W. Dragoo/The Field Museum)

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Spotted skunks are small, sneaky and exceedingly cute — and they stand on their hands before spraying you with their butts.

And now scientists say the little critters are a lot more genetically diverse than they appear at first glance.

While similar in appearance, spotted skunks are, in fact, made up of seven unique species, according to a new study published in the the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

"We didn't know before, and I think the best line is you can't conserve or protect what we don't know," Adam Ferguson, an evolutionary ecologist at the Field Museum in Chicago, told As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong.

If there's anyone who wants to protect the skunks, it's Ferguson. He's been studying the stinky creatures for years and has handled literally hundreds of them. His wife Molly McDonough — also a scientist and co-author on the study — calls him "the skunk wrassler."

"I've only been sprayed about five or six times, so that's a pretty good ratio," he said.

Adam Ferguson, left, an evolutionary ecologist at the Field Museum in Chicago, shows off some of the museum's collection of spotted skunk specimens. (The Field Museum)

Fortunately, it's pretty easy to avoid getting sprayed by a spotted skunk. Ferguson says tiny nocturnal predators are "very acrobatic," and they use their gymnast-like skills to give anyone who comes too close a fair warning of what's to come.

"They do the handstand as a warning to basically remind you — as if the black and white colouration wasn't enough — that: 'I have this weapon. I'm not afraid to use it. Leave me alone,'' Ferguson said.

In fact, he says, all skunk species have warning mechanisms before they spray. The classic striped skunk slides forward and back and puffs up its tail, while the hog-nosed skunk stomps up and down and lets out a mean hiss.

"But the spotted skunks are kind of taking it to the extreme with the handstand, and they're actually quite capable of walking, you know, forward and backwards in that handstand position."

Scientists say there are seven distinct species of spotted skunks. This one sports a wavy pattern. (R.C. Dowler/The Field Museum)

Despite their unique patterns and acrobatic antics, people don't encounter spotted skunks nearly as often as their striped counterparts.

That's because they're nocturnal and prefer to spend their waking hours in densely forested areas, hidden from the owls that hunt them for dinner.

"They're kind of sneaky," Ferguson said. "And so it's not that they're necessarily rare. They're just rarely encountered unless you learn about their behaviour and where to find them."

That's why scientists are just now figuring out how many species of spotted skunks exist. There's long been debate and speculation about it, but the wily critters are hard to catch, so the available data has been limited. 

A western spotted skunk peeks around a corner. The critters are known to be sneaky and skittish. (The Field Museum)

Ferguson and his colleagues gathered DNA samples from far and wide for their study, using both decades-old remains collected at museums around the world, and fresh samples collected in the field from living skunks. 

They say the discovery brings the net total of skunk species worldwide to 14. That information is key for those who want to study, and help conserve, the animals. 

"Skunks are valuable to us as a species in terms of their ecosystem services and contributions. And then there's also, I would say, the intrinsic argument that, you know, all lifeforms have the intrinsic right to life and to live and evolve and respond to the environment," Ferguson said. 

While he loves his work, he admits the research was not without its foibles.

"During this study, I got indirectly sprayed by one spotted skunk we caught in the trap. The skunks are usually pretty calm. If you walk up to them, you can take a blanket or a towel and move very slowly and cover the trap, and they don't spray. But this one just decided to spray under the blanket," he said.

"And I get this question a lot — I personally think the spotted skunk smells the most potent and worse than the other two."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo.

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