I recently wrote about the rapid spread of the nine-banded armadillo across much of the eastern United States. Their range has been expanding continually northward for more than a hundred years, including to every county in South Carolina. Compare the ambitious armadillo to the striped skunk, an animal that seems stuck in the South Carolina Piedmont.
While striped skunks, Mephitis mephitis, can be found in all of the lower 48 states, their South Carolina range is largely restricted to areas north and west of the Fall Line — generally described as the area where the Upcountry region and the Lowcountry meet. Travel up I-26 from Columbia toward Greenville, and you will probably observe the carcasses of one or more dead skunks, along with their unmistakable smell, somewhere between Chapin and Newberry. Drive toward Charleston and nary a skunk can be found. I can’t help but think that if Aesop had known about the different pace with which these two mammals have approached expansion, his fable might not have included the tortoise and hare.
Striped skunks are relatively small, nocturnal mammals, usually weighing between 4 and 10 pounds. Skunks belong to the family Mephitidate, which, not surprisingly, means “stink.” Historically they were grouped with weasels, otters, and badgers, but DNA sequencing indicates that skunks descend from their own ancestor.
They are noted for their overall black color with two distinct parallel white stripes extending from head to tail. They are rather short-lived, rarely living more than four years. Breeding occurs during the winter months. Litters can be quite large, with up to eight young being born following an approximately 60-day gestation period. Skunks have few natural predators but can be taken by birds of prey. Various references claim that skunks are insectivores, feeding primarily on small insects, while others refer to them as omnivores, feeding on all forms of prey, including caterpillars, grasshoppers, frogs, and eggs.
By far, the most defining feature of all skunks is the two scent glands located on either side of their anus. These glands emit a musk with an odor that has been described as a cross between rotten eggs, sewer gas, and burning tires … or worse. The spray consists of a substance called (E)-2-butenyl thioacetate, which is a pungent mix of sulfur-based compounds. Skunks use this offensive odor as an effective means of defense. Incredibly, they possess the ability to dispense the spray as conditions demand. When being chased by an unseen predator, the skunk emits the spray as a wide mist. But when the animal identifies an individual target, the spray is discharged in a stream at the predator’s eyes. This stream of horrible stink is accurate up to 10 feet away. Some reports claim that the smell of skunk spray can be detected over a mile away.
Once dispensed, the musk may take 10 to 12 days to replenish, leaving a skunk vulnerable to predation during this time. For this reason, skunks are reluctant to emit their spray unless absolutely necessary. Before spraying, skunks will often perform an elaborate “dance.” This includes stomping the ground, slapping their tail, and engaging in what has been described as a handstand dance.
Skunks, classified as fur-bearers, can be hunted or trapped in South Carolina during the open season. Skunks may be trapped from the first of December to March 1. Hunting season is Thanksgiving Day through February with a valid hunting license.
No article about skunks is complete without mentioning Pepé Le Pew, a Looney Tunes character introduced to the public in 1945 that was first voiced by the famous voice actor Mel Blanc. Portrayed as a French skunk, Pepé was constantly looking for love, but surprisingly, Pepé’s (E)-2-butenyl thioacetate thwarted his amorous attempts. In 2021, as a result of controversy surrounding his lecherous behavior, Warner Bros. reported that Pepé Le Pew would be “temporarily” removed from distribution; however, Pepé has not been seen since. Perhaps he’s stuck somewhere along I-26 between Columbia and Newberry.