Bay Nature magazineWinter 2022

Ask the Naturalist

Why Do Skunks Dance?

January 11, 2022
dancing skunk
A game camera captures a western spotted skunk dancing to warn off predators in Pima County, Arizona. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)

Now that marijuana is legal and much more ubiquitous, I’m never sure whether it’s the car in front of me I’m smelling or a road-killed skunk. Both have potent volatile chemicals that differ but can smell alike to us humans because both contain sulfur compounds.

Our name for the much-maligned skunk comes from Algonquian, a widespread language group common throughout New England. Seganku means the fox (or mammal) that urinates. I’ll say! But urine is innocuous compared to a skunk’s sticky, yellow, penetrating, highly acidic, and unpleasant emission. Contrary to popular myth, you will not go permanently blind if it gets in your eyes. While vomiting you may, however, regret the news that you’ll continue to live. Another bit of folk wisdom says a tomato juice bath removes the smell. However, the ex spurts (get it?) say washing with a mixture of one quart of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide, one-fourth cup baking soda, and one to two teaspoons of dishwashing soap should do the trick. Clothes should be burned.

Humans have greatly altered the American landscape in the last 400 years, and our wholesale clearing has benefited some species of skunks. Skunks are extremely adaptable and can live in the suburbs eating back-porch cat food or in the wild eating beetle grubs and yellow jackets. They amble along investigating everything in their path and digging little holes as they go. Their scat is usually dark brown or black, lightweight, and full of insect exoskeletons. 

We have two species of skunk in the Bay Area: the familiar striped skunk (Pepé Le Pew) and the much less common and slightly smaller spotted skunk. The striped skunk is found throughout North America. There are seven species of spotted skunk, with a similar distribution that extends into Central America. Our local species is the western spotted skunk (Spilogale gracilis).

With a well-developed pair of scent glands next to the anus, skunks’ notoriously formidable spraying defense makes them totally unafraid of any animal, and rightfully so. While desperate carnivores occasionally eat skunks, the main killer (besides automobiles) is the great horned owl. This creature, not surprisingly, lacks a sense of smell. The skunk’s striking bodily design may serve as a tip-off to other animals, but it’s merely a “GOOD EATS” sign for the owl. 

The skunks do give adequate warning to those that approach too closely. But this is where the two Bay Area skunk species differ dramatically in behavior. The striped skunk usually raises its tail, stomps its feet, and growls before actually discharging. The shot is accurate to 10 feet and often directed toward the head. The spotted, aka dancing, skunk actually does a handstand, spread-eagled, pirouetting like a little ballerina, raising all the hairs on its body, and displaying the anus and the formidable spraying glands. If the warned party does not get the message at this point, too bad.

Spraying really is a last defense because a skunk has a limited amount of odorous oil and it takes about a week to replace.

I have only seen two live spotted skunks in my life. But with the proliferation of wildlife cameras, we are seeing more and more wondrous videos of twirling skunks, including a feisty one threatening a mountain lion! I’d love to see this dancing in real life—but not too close, considering what that portends.

Finally, last week while in my local cannabis dispensary, I noticed they had a sale on Super Skunk Strain. I bought some on the off chance I could maybe do a handstand and some pirouettes. I’ll let you know.

About the Author

Send your questions to atn@baynature.org.Santa Rosa-based naturalist Michael Ellis leads nature trips throughout the world with Footloose Forays (footlooseforays.com).