Monday, December 1, 2014

Spotted skunk in my pantry!

We received a great email this week from Chris in Cumberland County, Virginia about a skunk in his parent's pantry.  His parents were in their 80's so he was not sure whether or not to believe them, but he set a trap and when his father called at 11:30 that evening it turned out to be an eastern spotted skunk!

Thankfully Chris noticed the animal as being unique from the more common striped skunk and safely released the animal back into the wild.  He used plastic sheeting to keep from being sprayed through the live trap, but told us that the skunk never sprayed and behaved well throughout the process.

This "good behavior" is a common feature of spotted skunks who scientists and the public alike have both relayed stories about how the spotted skunk is much more docile than the striped.  They are hesitant to spray or bite and thus we hope people will think twice about using lethal means to deal with spotted skunks in their backyard or pantry.  They are beautiful and rarely seen critters, and we urgently need more information about the species, so please keep the sightings coming!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Spotted skunk urban dance video

An amazing BBC short (1 min 37 sec) video on the natural history of spotted skunks, complete with young hoodlums dancing...

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Why we know so little...

A recent article put out by the Zoological Society of London analyzed how much is known about carnivores.  Specifically, they were looking at what biases exist in how research effort is partitioned among species.  To little surprise, large, charismatic species like the grey wolf featured near the top, with a number of key themes emerging:

  • Positive effect of large body size
  • Positive effect of large geographic range
  • Negative effect of omnivory (varied diet of carrion and other plant and insect matter)
  • Positive effect of high risk of extinction
We see our favorite little omnivore, the eastern spotted skunk, check most of the boxes for being data deficient.  Most telling is that due to lack of knowledge of its current range and where it is still extant, we lack even basic knowledge of whether research and conservation is needed in many areas throughout its range.  

A user-friendly summary graphic provided in the ZSL Wild About magazine helps explain these patterns further:

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Phoby Cat

A trip back home, to the Great Plains of North America, and I am still reminded of skunks.  For the long flight I took along a copy Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy's book "Rabid" and learned that the skunks were likely the most feared animal by Plains frontiersman.  Not the wolf, grizzly bear, or mountain lion, but the humble if not somewhat aeromatically inclined skunk.

Canadian fur trappers called the skunk "l'enfant du diable" or the "child of the devil."  The great president and outdoors-man Teddy Roosevelt once wrote that "there is no wild beast in the West, no matter what size and ferocity, so dreaded by old plainsmen as this seemingly harmless little beast."

The reason for this fear was not the skunk's odor, but its reputation as a carrier of rabies.  Skunks were not the only mammal to carry rabies, but early stories tell of nearly every person being bitten by a skunk contracting rabies (which at the time was nearly 100% fatal).  Such stories were not only brandished around campfires, but permanently attached to the early pioneer name for the skunk of "Phoby cat," referring to the tell-tale signs of hydrophobia that precede frothing of the mouth and eventual death.

It became widely believed that any skunk so bold as to approach a person or come into a field camp was rabid.  However, since that time we have learned that skunks are rarely rabid, and that today an urban skunk who enters a person's back yard is more likely habituated than diseased.  Indeed the few rare cases of rabies when they do occur in the US over the past 50 years have been primarily associated with bats and even raccoons.  The latter being the focus of large-scale vaccination programs.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Talladega Nights

By Dr. Andrew Edelman,

The Animal Ecology and Conservation Lab at the University of West Georgia is currently studying the relationship between prescribed fire management and mammalian diversity in montane longleaf pine forests. Our primary study area is located at the Shoal Creek Ranger District of Alabama’s Talladega National Forest. This area is the southernmost portion of the Appalachian Mountains and contains some of largest remnant stands of montane longleaf pine. Part of this project involves placing baited game cameras in different prescribed fire management areas to document mesocarnivore occupancy. These sites are baited with fatty acid scent discs and sardines. Currently, we have surveyed 21 sites across the national forest. During April and May 2014, we documented two eastern spotted skunks at different sites (see pictures below). Both these sites receive prescribed fire every 8 to 12 years and have relatively low ground cover vegetation and high canopy cover and stem densities. We plan to survey more sites over the next year with an expanded focus on spotted skunks.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Bears are back

April marked the return of black bears from their winter hibernation across most of our study area.  We delayed the start of our winter camera trapping to avoid bear hunters and their teams of hound dogs.  Now the return of bears marks the end of our 5 month campaign.

We had trouble before with pesky coyotes stealing our skunk bait, so bears take being a hungry disruptive scavenger to another level.

Not to mention the return of hordes of vultures from their tropical overwintering grounds to the south.

Besides, deer carcasses were getting putrid fast in the warm spring sun and a little hard to come by on the side of the road.

Over the next couple of weeks I will pull of all of our camera traps and produce a final tally of the spotted skunk camera captures, to be followed shortly thereafter by starting to analyze data from this first year of the study to gain insights in the distribution of spotted skunks in western Virginia.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Skunks of the beach

Well not on the beach literally, but over the past month I have received 2 reports of eastern spotted skunk road kills in the Melbourne Beach, Florida area.  Far from the mountain ridges we are finding spotted skunks in Appalachia, where they appear to be habitat specialists, these skunks are in suburban Florida.  

More interestingly, at least one sighting was near an occupied gopher tortoise burrow.  Perhaps a den for our little spotted friends?   The association between spotted skunks and gopher tortoises has been seen at Archbold Biological Station in Highlands County, Florida, where researchers believe spotted skunks are using the burrows for shelter during the warm Florida days.  These burrows also likely serve as feeding sites for spotted skunks by offering a one-stop-shop of insects, small mammals, reptiles and perhaps even eggs.  

From Arkansas, to Florida, and even up here at the northern extent of their range in Virginia, a recurrent theme is emerging in eastern spotted skunk ecology - spotted skunks need cover.  These primarily nocturnal animals need ready access to dens and dense understory, something that in south Florida appear to be provided by coastal scrub and gopher tortoise burrows.

Further reading:

Crooks, K. R. (1994). Den-site selection in the island spotted skunk of Santa Cruz Island, California. The Southwestern Naturalist, 354-357.

Frank, P. A., & Lips, K. R. (1989). Gopher tortoise burrow use by long-tailed weasels and spotted skunks. Florida Field Naturalist17, 20-22.

Manaro, A. J. (1961). Observations on the behavior of the spotted skunk in Florida. Quarterly Journal of the Florida Academy of Science24, 59-63.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

No luck in Louisiana

Wildlife biologists can be an awful lot like gold miners, exploring new areas to be the first on the scene to find a new species or rediscover an ancient overlooked vein of biodiversity.  But sometimes what you don't find is just as important as when you uncover that rare nugget.  This is certainly the case in survey efforts to find eastern spotted skunks, a species on a precipitous decline across much of its range.  

Over the course of four years between 2009 and 2012, researchers Paul Leberg and Rebecca Davis of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette used proven spotted skunk detection methods to try to find out if eastern spotted skunks still remained in the Louisiana.  Using a combination of baited track plates, remotely triggered camera traps, hair snares and live traps the researchers failed to find even a single trace of an eastern spotted skunk remaining in the state.  

Declines in eastern spotted skunks across their historic range have been reported to be as high as 99%.  In Louisiana, a 97% decline in eastern spotted skunks was first documented over four decades ago based on declines in statewide fur sales between the 1920's and 1960's.  Now there is scientific evidence to suggest that eastern spotted skunks are very rare or perhaps extirpated from the state.  

The author's failure to find even a single animal following the first systematic survey of a state at the core of their former historic range should raise further conservation concern for the future of this species.  Unfortunately, with spotted skinks being so rare and on the verge of extirpation in Louisiana and elsewhere through the central, southern and eastern US, it is increasingly difficult or impossible to learn what they need to persist.  

We now more than ever need the public to step forward with sighting of this species so that researchers can begin to conduct detailed studies to find out about there ecology.  Only by discovering what conditions they do rely on and what impacts their survival will we be able to conserve the species effectively into the future. 

Further reading:

Gompper, M. E. and H. M. Hackett. 2005.  The long-term, range-wide decline of a once common carnivore: the eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius). Anim. Conserv., 8:195-201.

Leberg, P. and R. Davis.  2013.  Assessment of population status and habitat use of the eastern spotted skunk in Louisiana.  Final Report submitted to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Lafayette, Louisiana.

Lowery, G. H. 1976. The mammals of Louisiana and its adjacent waters. Kingsport Press Inc. Kingsport, Tennessee.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Don't mess with the spotted skunk!

Video footage from California suggests that when it comes to scavenging a deer carcass, the diminutive western spotted skunk gets first dibs.  Scientists at University of California Davis placed a trail camera on deer that was killed by a mountain lion they had been studying (note the tracking collar in the video below) when they happened to catch on video a western spotted skunk chasing a much larger mountain lion from the carcass.  

The observation was reported in the recent issue of Canadian Field Naturalist where the authors note that despite the spotted skunk being 1% of the body size of a mountain lion, it not only chased the big cat off of the carcass once, but again when the lion returned.  This represents the largest reported size differential of a smaller mammal successfully out-competing a larger one.  Way to go spotted skunk!

While cougars are not present in our study area here in the Appalachian mountains, this video footage makes us wonder about how we interpret interactions like the one in the image below.

Is this an example of multiple carnivores "sharing" a carcass, or could the camera trap image only be capturing the moment right before aggression?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

It begins with a sample size of one...

Starting with only 44 confirmed sightings ever in the State of Virginia, we knew our chances were low of finding eastern spotted skunks in the state.  We didn't know if we could even find a single skunk to start our multi-year study on the species.  No one had ever gone out explicitly looking for these little guys in the eastern states along the spine of the Appalachian mountains (Maine to Georgia), they were always the rare encounter by a trapper or oddly patterned roadkill reported to state officials.  We looked at this pattern of historic reports and strategically set out traps in mid-January, just before the cold front that brought in up to 8 inches of drifting snow.  Then, a week later after the snow passed, we checked our camera traps and found this guy...

Then two days later, in a different county, another spotted...

While these results have to be couched in the fact that we only placed cameras in what we thought was the most ideal habitat for spotted skunks (i.e., based on the 44 historical sightings), it gives us hope that we will be successful in learning more about this species over the coming years.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Spotted skunk stories from the past

This past week our friends at ran an article I wrote about Eastern spotted skunks.  Thanks to the large readership of that blog, we heard some great stories about where naturalists have observed spotted skunks across the continental US.  

One type of report we often receive is that eastern spotted skunks were observed by a reporter's grandparents or even during their childhood in an area, but have not been seen for years.  As an example, below is a story Richard Smith of Mississippi shared with us last week:

"My family has a property in Clarke County, MS, about 3 miles from the Alabama line along Highway 18. (It is about half way between Quitman, MS and Butler, AL). I spent last week up there, and by chance my uncle and I were talking about spotted skunks.
My uncle (who is in his 70's) can't remember the last time he saw a spotted skunk (though he sees a striped skunk or two each year). When I was young, the property was mostly forested with a few scattered fields that were rotationally cropped and a few small semi-improved pastures. The woods were also rotationally grazed by scrub cattle. My grandparents had free-range chickens & guineas. Chickenhawks (red-tailed hawks), chicken snakes (gray rat snakes), possums, coons, foxes, etc. were the scourge of the earth because they killed chickens or ate eggs. Skunks (striped skunks) and civet cats (spotted skunks) also ate eggs.

I remember that my grandfather talked about how he seldom saw "civet cats" anymore a couple of times in the 1970's. The only spotted skunk that I saw on the farm was around 1975. It ran from under a mulberry tree when I was going to eat mulberries, so it would have likely been in April or May. I ran traplines in the winter for the hides, and I'd catch a couple of striped skunks each year, but never caught a spotted skunk

Scientists like Dr. Mathew Gompper at the University of Missouri have further backed up these observations with fur trapping records.  He found that over 100,000 eastern spotted skunks were annually harvested in the midwestern and southeastern US prior to the 1940's.  However, by the early 1950's harvest had declined to <10% of that volume.  By the 1980's, harvest had declined to <1% of that former level, suggesting a severe decline in the species across this region over time.  

Details on this study can be found in:  Gompper, M.E., & Hackett, H.M. (2005). The long-term, range-wide decline of a once common carnivore: the eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius).  Animal Conservation, 8, 195-201 DOI:10.1017/S1367943005001964

To read more stories of observations of spotted skunks from Utah to Florida, read the comments at the bottom of our recent blog post here.