You’re traipsing through an American forest and you come across a dancing skunk. What a delightful little creature, you might think; maybe it’s been trained. Oh look, it’s even doing a funny handstand for your amusement. A few minutes later, you smell so appallingly bad that it’s caused you to vomit, your nostrils are burning and you’ve gone temporarily blind.
The skunk is one of the world’s smelliest animals. The smell comes from anal scent glands, an anatomical feature shared by many members of the mustelid, or weasel, family (as people who own ferrets will agree), but the ones found in skunks are the most developed. The glands produce a mixture of sulphur-containing chemicals that have a highly offensive smell, which even the hungriest of predators find unendurable. As a result, most animals such as wolves and bears leave skunks well alone. The exception is the great horned owl, which, like most birds, has a poor to non-existent sense of smell and can hunt skunks without fear.
Humans may have a relatively unsophisticated sense of smell compared to many animals but, even so, we can still detect it from over a mile away, and getting closer can result in you being violently sick. If it gets in your eyes (which, thanks to the skunk’s accuracy and range, it often does), extreme irritation and even blindness can occur. If it gets on your clothes, they might as well be thrown away or, better yet, destroyed because the odour is virtually impossible to remove. One traditional American treatment to get rid of a skunk stench is to take a nice long bath… in tomato juice.
A skunk only carries enough of its foul-smelling chemical for a few uses at any one time and once it has been depleted it takes a few days to build up a new supply. This means that a skunk is reluctant to use its weapon unless it really has to. A skunk therefore has a boldly patterned black and white body and will usually give a fair warning of its character by making itself as conspicuous as possible and waving its bushy tail.
The spotted skunk puts on a particularly impressive display. When threatened, it first stamps its front feet and erects its bristling tail. If whatever spooked the skunk – be that a hungry fox or a bumbling human – did so inadvertently, this warning gives them time to react accordingly and go elsewhere. If that doesn’t work, the skunk does a handstand, hoisting its hind legs in the air and waving its tail towards you. This is the second and final warning; if you see this, it’s time to make a rapid retreat.
But if the threat still persists – perhaps the fox is young and inexperienced, or the human particularly foolhardy – the skunk will have no other choice. It drops back onto all fours, turns its back on the threat and squirts. The jet can travel almost two metres, and the nozzle of the scent gland can be twisted so that the spray shoots out at varying angles, which makes dodging it almost impossible.
So if you go down to the woods today and stumble across a skunk doing a handstand, do yourself a favour – run the other way and don’t look back. Otherwise you’ll be spending the next few hours immersed in a bath of tomato juice…