There is more variety in the skunk family than you may have suspected. Going far beyond the familiar waddling, black-and-white striped critter roaming many suburban backyards, there are a wide variety of lesser-known skunk species — including two found in the Malay Islands of southeast Asia. But they all have two things in common: an infamously unmistakable aroma and a single ancestry source.
According to PBS, "DNA and evidence from the fossil record suggest that the Mephitidae family derived from a single common ancestor about 30 to 40 million years ago. The descendants of this ancient skunk have evolved into 12 of the stinkiest and most intriguing species on the planet."
Those 12 species fall into five distinct types of skunks. Here they are, each beneficial to their ecosystems and surprisingly cute in their own smelly way.
This type of skunk is probably the most commonly known. Found throughout North America from central Mexico into Canada, the striped skunk is content living anywhere from the most pristine wilderness to the heart of urban centers. It's black-and-white markings are familiar and even fear-inducing to those who have had an unfortunate run-in with its spray.
The spray is an oily liquid that the skunk can shoot up to 10 feet. It's so powerful that it can induce vomiting and can temporarily blind anyone unfortunate enough to get spritzed in the eyes. The stink lasts for days and is next to impossible to get out. Ask a dog owner whose pet got sprayed, and they'll confirm how tough it is to wash away.
Despite the smelly trouble they can sometimes cause, striped skunks — and all skunk species — are quite beneficial. They have an omnivorous diet and help with everything from keeping insects like grasshoppers, beetles, crickets and wasps in check to spreading seeds of fruits and berries and cleaning up fallen fruit.
Not all skunks come with stripes. This adorable species sports a black-and-white dappled coat that, while technically isn't spotted, is the source of this variety's name. Rather than the ventral stripes of other species, spotted skunks have stripe-like patches of white in patterns distinct to each individual.
There are four species of spotted skunk, all of which are found from Central America north into Canada. Two species, the eastern spotted skunk and the pygmy spotted skunk, are considered to be vulnerable to extinction.
Spotted skunks grow to be one to two feet in length and are agile climbers, often taking to the trees and walking along branches, which is why they're sometimes called tree skunks. Taking advantage of a diverse diet, spotted skunks will happily feast on fruits and other easy foods, but also will go after tougher prey such as snakes.
While forests and shrub-covered areas offer a great habitat, spotted skunks are content setting up dens around homes, farms and other places where it might be easy to have a run-in with this cute but stinky creature. Luckily they give plenty of warning, including stomping and rising up to walk on their front feet.
Check out the dance this little guy can do when warning off an intruder:
Hooded skunks get their name from the cap of long fur on the top of their heads and the backs of their necks, which can look almost like a furry cape. They have color pattern variations, including a single wide, white dorsal stripe (pictured here), or they may be entirely black except for the white hood and some white on the tail. This skunk has a longer tail and softer fur than its striped skunk cousins.
The hooded skunk is found from the southwestern United States all the way down to Costa Rica. This species can be found in a variety of habitats, according to the University of Michigan. "Hooded skunks can live in several habitats, from dry lowlands to boreal forests or plateaus, and many habitats in between. These skunks may be found in high-elevation ponderosa pine forests, deciduous forests, forest edges, riparian zones, rocky canyons, grasslands, pastures, and arid desert lowlands. In Oaxaca, Mexico, where they are the most common skunk species, they prefer grasslands and marshes over scrublands."
Like many skunk species, hooded skunks have more than just one name. This species is sometimes called the long-tailed Mexican skunk, southern skunk, white-sided skunk or zorillo.
Hog-nosed skunks have a broad, bald snout much like that of a pig. Like their namesake, the hog-nosed skunk uses its strong sniffer to root around in the ground for food, which includes grubs, beetles and insect larvae. Combined with long, sharp claws and a powerful upper body, hog-nosed skunks are powerful diggers.
Hog-nosed skunks are found in southern North America, Central America and portions of South America. There are several distinct species: Molina's hog-nosed skunk, the striped hog-nosed skunk, Humboldt's hog-nosed skunk and the American hog-nosed skunk (which includes eastern hog-nosed and western hog-nosed skunks).
The American hog-nosed skunk is not only among the largest skunk species at more than 2 feet long and weighing up to 10 pounds, it is also the only species that lacks the familiar white medial bar between the eyes. The all-black face and distinctive nose make this type of skunk easy to identify.
The hog-nosed skunk has an interesting evolutionary history among skunk species. According to Natural History Magazine:
An ancestor of hog-nosed skunks and a spotted skunk-like form appeared in the early Pliocene records of Mexico. Shortly after that, the hog-nosed skunks managed to migrate into South America, taking advantage of a newly formed land bridge connecting North and South America. This is part of a major geologic event called the Great American Biotic Interchange, or GABI, and hog-nosed skunks were among the earliest carnivores to expand to the south.
Hog-nosed skunks primarily eat insects and prey that are considered crop pests, so they can be particularly beneficial to have on a farm or in a garden.
Despite the “badger” label, these smelly critters fall squarely in the skunk family. Their appearance is part of the misnomer, since they lack a long bushy tail like other skunk species. Instead, they have a similar look to badgers with their robust, stocky body shape and stumpy tails.
There are two species of stink badger — the Palawan stink badger, or pantot, and the Sunda stink badger, or teledu. They’re found on the western islands of the Malay Archipelago where they root around for invertebrates, eggs, worms and other goodies under the cover of night.
Like its skunk relatives, and true to its name, the stink badger can spray a foul-smelling secretion as a form of self-defense. For the Sunda stink badger, this is the second tack it takes when threatened. Its first strategy is to play dead like an opossum. When it is forced to squirt a predator, it can spray the secretion only about 6 inches. The Palawan stink badger, on the other hand, has a far more noxious smelling secretion which it can spray up to a meter away and will do so as the first line of defense. In other words, they’re not to be trifled with.
Check out a stink badger in action as it moves around looking for grub (literally!) in the middle of the night.