Say hello to the standing spotted skunks, “the acrobats of the skunk world”

Originally Posted: 01 SEP 21 06:33 ET

Update: Sept. 21, 21 at 5:49 p.m. ET

By Ashley Strickland, CNN

(CNN) – At first glance, you might think all skunks are the same. Not so.

Meet the spotted skunks, “the acrobats of the skunk world”. Scientists have found that there are more of these species than they thought, new research shows.

More recently, the number agreed upon was four. But a new study published Wednesday in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution indicates that there are seven species of spotted skunks.

“North America is one of the most studied continents in terms of mammals, and carnivores are one of the most studied groups,” said study author Adam Ferguson, head of collections at Negaunee mammals at the Field Museum in Chicago. “Everyone thinks we know all about the systematics of mammalian carnivores, so being able to redraw the skunk family tree is very exciting.”

Spotted skunks are the smallest relatives of the common striped skunk. The size of a squirrel, these elusive carnivores live across North America. And when the time comes to scare off a predator, these little guys do a headstand and stick their hind legs out.

“When they’re stressed, they bounce off their forelimbs, then hit their hindlimbs, swell their tails, and they can actually walk towards the predator, as if to make them look bigger and scarier,” Fergusons said.

Skunks usually get on all fours in order to aim deadly and control their foul-smelling spray. Their small size also does not cause these creatures to recoil in combat.

A study published in 2013 included a video of a western spotted skunk standing and facing a mountain lion on a deer carcass. For reference, spotted skunks typically weigh less than 2 pounds (0.9 kilograms).

It’s just another example of their daring, something he admires in skunks in general, Ferguson said.

While the common striped skunk has made its presence known in urban areas, as well as its natural habitats, striped skunks have not made the same inroads and therefore remain largely out of sight. These “ecologically cryptic” creatures live in dense environments and remote areas and appear less adaptable to urbanization than their larger, striped counterparts, Ferguson said.

Given their agility, spotted skunks are great climbers, and they are much more carnivorous than other skunks, feasting on the eggs of birds, lizards, snakes, and rodents. The Great Horned Owls are their main predator.

The fact that spotted skunks are so good at keeping a low profile makes them more difficult to study. Since the discovery of the first spotted skunk in 1758, scientists have wondered how many species exist. Over the years, the differences seen between some spotted skunks have led researchers to believe that there were only two species and as many as 14.

Determining that there are seven species amounts to analyzing the genetic data of spotted skunks. But first, Ferguson needed specimens to study. Trapping skunks isn’t the easiest job – Ferguson and his colleagues made six trips to Mexico while looking for spotted skunks and never caught one. And if you catch one, you’re bound to be pulverized.

“We call it the Smell of Success because it means we’ve met one, which is the ultimate goal,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson was inspired to make “wanted” posters and distribute them throughout central Texas to food stores and areas where ranchers and trappers operate. The posters described the need for any spotted skunks that might have been trapped or found as killed on the road and showed photos of the creatures. The researchers offered to collect the skunk specimens and store them in a designated “skunk freezer”.

The researchers also drew on specimens from museum collections, which included spotted skunks found in Central America and Yucatan. Ultimately, they had 203 specimens of spotted skunk to use for the study and DNA extraction. Genetic data revealed that some of the skunks, once thought to be the same species, were actually quite different.

“I was able to extract DNA from samples from centuries-old museums, and it was really exciting to see who these individuals were related to. It turns out that one of them was a currently unrecognized endemic species. in Yucatan, ”the study said. author Molly McDonough, professor of biology at Chicago State University and research associate at Field Museum, in a statement.

One of the new species in the study is the Yucatan spotted skunk, which is about the size of a squirrel and is only found on the Yucatan Peninsula. Scientists also describe the plains spotted skunk, whose population has declined over the past century and has been suggested as an endangered species.

“The study wouldn’t have been possible without the museum specimens we had,” Ferguson said. “The only reason we were able to get footage from Yucatan was museum specimens that were collected 60 or 70 years ago.”

Understanding the different species of skunks can help scientists learn about something unique to these creatures: their reproductive biology. Spotted skunks can breed in the fall, but they do not give birth until the spring. In other words, their reproductive system deliberately delays the implantation of the egg in the uterus.

“He’s hanging around for a while,” Ferguson said. “We want to know why some species have delayed establishment and others not, and understanding how these different species of skunks evolved can help us do that.”

Skunks have come a long way since their first appearance in the fossil record 25 million years ago, evolving and separating into different species in response to climate change caused by the Ice Age.

Learning more about spotted skunks can also help conservation efforts to protect these animals. Skunks have their own role to play in the ecosystem, consuming fruit and defecating seeds that aid in plant dispersal, as well as attacking crop pests and rodents, Ferguson said.

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