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.