The master of chemical warfare

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-111583483914709.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of’, ‘The skunk is usually reluctant to employ his chemical defense mechanism and gives warning before using it.’);

The common striped skunk is a nocturnal prowler of the Rock River Valley, and is rarely seen during hours of daylight. Its scent, however, after a nighttime encounter with a hound or a painful collision with a vehicle, lets one and all know of its presence. Captain John Smith, the intrepid explorer of the Chesapeake Bay Country in the early 1600s, was so offended by the odor of a skunk he encountered that he referred to it in his diary as an “infernal polecat,” thus giving the animal a synonym by which it is commonly called today. However, Captain Smith, who was an excellent observer of natural history, misidentified the skunk as a polecat, which is actually a malodorous species of European marten.

Whatever one chooses to call the beast—skunk, polecat, woods pussy—this animal’s claim to fame is its ability to emit one of the most powerful-smelling secretions in the animal kingdom. The late, Canadian naturalist and writer, Ernest Thompson Seton, found the skunk’s aroma rather agreeable when very dilute. Seton confessed, however, that it resembles, when emitted by the skunk, “a mixture of strong ammonia, essence of garlic, burning sulfur, sewer gas, and a dash of perfume musk all mixed together and intensified a thousand times.”

In the animal world, the skunk possesses what very nearly may be the ultimate in a defensive weapon. Very few would-be predators are bold enough to risk an encounter with a woods pussy. Even bears have been known to step aside and let a skunk have the right of way on a woodland trail.

The redolent secretions released by the skunk come from two glands located on each side of the colon. Ducts lead from the scent glands into the large intestine close to the anal opening. When the skunk is ready to launch its chemical attack, it turns its back to the intended target, raises the tail high over its back, and stamps the front feet in warning. The skunk, as a matter of fact, seems reluctant to use its chemical weapon and seems to hope the warning will somehow discourage the annoyer or potential predator. It has been suggested that the chemical discharge smells so horrible, even to the skunk, that he is reluctant to use it.

If the warning is not heeded, however, muscles contract and squeeze the scent glands, and a cloud of an aerosol-type spray is released. The spray may be thrown up to 10 feet or so with amazing accuracy. Firsthand reports indicate there is no irritation to the human skin, but severe eye irritation is caused by just one tiny drop of the spray. Although only a small amount of the secretion is released at each discharge, it is so powerful that only one or two drops can be distinctly smelled a half mile away in all directions. Strong air currents can carry the odor to more distant points.

The species we encounter throughout the state is the striped skunk, Mephitis mephitis. The white stripe on the back divides into two and continues part way down the back The forehead shows a narrow white stripe ending at the level of the ears. Dr. Donald F. Hoffmeister, Illinois’s most prominent mammalogist, believes another species of skunk is present in Illinois as it has been recorded in several counties in Iowa that border the Mississippi River. If true, the spotted variety is easily distinguished from its striped cousin.

When I was a boy, I was told that the safe way to catch a skunk was to sneak up behind it, seize it quickly by the tail, and hoist it on high. A skunk held in this position, according to some “experts,” is unable to release its secretions. I cannot vouch for this technique as I have never had a desire to capture a skunk. Though this method of safely catching one has proven to be successful in some instances, it cannot be recommended unless one is fully prepared to take the dire consequences of possible failure. Apparently “descented” skunks may be kept as pets, but I wonder how a veterinarian can render the scent glands inoperable without running the risk of having to close his practice for an extended period.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the May 11-17, 2005, issue

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