Skunk's Strategy Not Just Black and White

Nov 10, 2009
Striped skunk. Image: Wikipedia

Predators with experience of skunks avoid them both because of their black-and-white coloration and their distinctive body shape, according to UC Davis wildlife researcher Jennifer Hunter. The study was published online Oct. 21 in the journal Behavioral Ecology.

Hunter wanted to know how predators know a skunk is a skunk. Biologists had assumed that the distinctive black-and-white color scheme was a marker saying, "keep away."

Hunter prepared taxidermy mounts of skunks and of gray foxes, an animal about the same size but a distinctly different shape. Some of the stuffed skunks she dyed gray, and some of the foxes she dyed black-and-white. She then placed the animals at 10 sites around California -- in locations where skunks were abundant as well in areas where they were uncommon -- and monitored them with infrared video cameras.

In locations where wild skunks were not commonly found, predators such as bears, mountain lions, bobcats and coyotes would approach, lick, roll on or attempt to drag away the stuffed skunks as well as the stuffed foxes. But in places where skunks were common, potential predators gave anything skunk-like, either in shape or color, a wide berth.

"They wouldn't go near them," Hunter said.

The results suggest a much stronger learning component in prey recognition than was previously thought, Hunter said. She was also surprised to find that , not just color, was important. Previous studies, mostly conducted in the laboratory rather than in the wild, had suggested that animals have an inbuilt tendency to avoid brightly colored or multicolored prey.

The study also raises the question: Does anything actually eat skunks? Possibly not, Hunter thinks.

While numbers of most animals are controlled by predators above them in the , skunks may be a rare example where the main check on their numbers comes from disease, food supply or lack of habitat -- factors that depend mainly on the number of skunks themselves.

Provided by UC Davis (news : web)

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User comments : 4

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jselin
not rated yet Nov 10, 2009
"Predators with experience of skunks avoid them both because of their black-and-white coloration and their distinctive body shape, according to UC Davis wildlife researcher Jennifer Hunter. "

Oh and one more thing... they STINK! A whole article and not one mention of the odor. Weird.
nkalanaga
not rated yet Nov 10, 2009
Great Horned Owls will eat skunks. I've heard that the owls also have no sense of smell, which may be a factor.

Skunks generally don't stink if left alone. They take great pains to keep their musk off themselves, because they don't like the smell any more than anything else does. A skunk dyed gray wouldn't deter a predator looking only for color cues until it actually sprayed.
fixer
not rated yet Nov 10, 2009
All Skunks are gray at night! not the most enlightning article.
poi
not rated yet Nov 10, 2009
@jselin
"Predators with experience of skunks avoid them both because of their black-and-white coloration and their distinctive body shape, according to UC Davis wildlife researcher Jennifer Hunter. "

Oh and one more thing... they STINK! A whole article and not one mention of the odor. Weird.

I think the "predators with experience of skunks" statement meant that already. What other known experience could predators have with skunks? Hypnotize them to nausea with a wiggly waggly black and white color?
It just means (since am already spelling it out) since the predators had experience with skunks (i.e. their odor), the next time they "see" the cues of black-and-white and the body shape, they are alerted (i.e. avoid before smelling it again).

You have to give the researcher a credit. She is a "Hunter" after all. (sorry, just had to crack that somehow)

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