A Search – and a Good Word – for Skunks

By Emily Ferrall

You can imagine the looks I received when I told people I worked with skunks for the past few months. Most reacted with dislike, but I’m hoping to change that opinion by providing information on these misunderstood creatures.

First, did you know that we have two species of skunks in Georgia? The more common striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) is the one many Georgians have seen. The eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius) is unknown to most, but it is also a Georgia native!

As are all skunks, eastern spotteds are sometimes called polecats. But unlike other skunks, spotted skunks often display a unique behavior as a defensive measure when threatened: They do a handstand and spray their scent directly over their head!

EasternSpotted Skunk_Rabun_2017
Trail cam photo of eastern spotted skunk in Rabun County (DNR)

Spotted skunks are much smaller than striped skunks and typically weigh only 1-3 pounds. Their pattern is variable, but they usually have a white spot on the top of their head and a white-tipped tail.

The known range of the spotted skunk in our state is limited to extreme north Georgia and near the Columbus area; however, the species could be much more widespread.

These skunks are considered rare or vulnerable in many nearby states, and little is known about their true status in Georgia. They are an elusive species that is primarily nocturnal, prefers to live in areas of dense cover and is less tolerant of humans than striped skunks. No wonder people rarely see spotted skunks, even in areas they are known to inhabit!

EasternSpotted Skunk_BobGress
Eastern spotted skunk (Bob Gress)

So how did I work with them if they are so elusive? Well, so far I haven’t actually caught a spotted skunk, but what I have done is a form of passive monitoring to detect where they are in the state.

Working with a graduate student from Clemson University, with funding from the Game Management and Nongame Conservation sections of DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division, I randomly selected sites with suitable habitat for spotted skunks. I then placed 21 motion-activated cameras at each, along with a can of sardines and a strong-smelling lure to attract the skunks. I visited the cameras every other week to download pictures, replace batteries and replenish the bait.

It was fascinating to see what walked past my cameras! I did “capture” an eastern spotted skunk. But I also got countless images of bears, deer, hogs, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, raccoons, birds and even a woodchuck at many other cameras! Many of these other creatures loved to check out the cameras and of course even steal the bait—bears sure are curious!

I did not get a spotted skunk at every site, but the data helps document where the skunks are and are not detected.

We cannot say for certain spotted skunks aren’t in an area because one didn’t walk past the camera; however, it gives us more information about their locations.

Where we did photograph a spotted skunk, we can try to determine what made that site suitable for the species and how, if we need to, those habitat conditions can be replicated to encourage spotted skunks to thrive elsewhere.

And just because the spotted skunk is more elusive and not as common in Georgia as the striped skunk doesn’t mean you won’t see one. If you think you’ve observed a spotted skunk, please try to get a photograph, and provide it and the location and to DNR’s rare species reporting page.

The more information we can find out about these creatures the better!

Now, I may not have convinced you to like skunks – even spotted ones – but hopefully now that know more about them in our state, the next time you see one you will be able to appreciate it more than before!

Emily Ferrall is a wildlife technician working with skunks and other mammals for the DNR Wildlife Resources Division’s Nongame Conservation Section.

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