Episode 139: Skunks and Other Stinkers

This week we’re commemorating my HOUSE getting SKUNKED by a SKUNK and it was STINKY

The skunk, stinky but adorkable, especially when it’s eating yellow jackets:

The stink badger looks like a shaved skunk with a bobbed tail:

The zorilla wants to be your stinky friend:

A woodhoopoe, most magnificent:

A Eurasian hoopoe, looking snazzy:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to learn about some animals that are infamous for their stinkiness. This wasn’t the topic I had planned on for this week, but last week my house got skunked. That is, a skunk sprayed an animal very close to my house, which means I woke up at 4:45am gagging from the smell of point-blank skunk odor. And this was with the windows closed and the air conditioning going. It was so bad I thought I would throw up, so I yanked on my clothes, grabbed my purse, and fled the house at 5:30am. I went to work early—don’t worry, I got coffee on the way—and spent the whole day smelling skunk faintly where the smell clung to my hair and, oddly, my phone case. Also I spent the whole day complaining to my coworkers.

Fortunately, when I got home the smell had dissipated somewhat, so I opened all the windows and doors and by the next morning it was mostly gone. But it got me wondering why skunk spray smells so, so bad and how many other stinky animals are out there.

The skunk is native to North and South America, although there are two species of related animals that live in some of the islands of the Malay Archipelago, called stink badgers. No seriously, that’s really what they’re called. Skunks and stink badgers are related to actual badgers and to weasels, but not closely.

The stink badger is black or dark brown with a white stripe that runs from its head down the back of its neck and along its spine, and finishes at its little short tuft of a tail. The skunk is black or dark brown with one or two white stripes or white spots, depending on the species, which continues down its long fluffy tail. In all cases, though, these stinky animals are vividly patterned with dark fur and bright white markings as a warning to other animals. Do not get too close or there’s a world of stink coming your way. Also, I can verify from my own experience that the white markings of a skunk make it much easier to see in the darkness and therefore avoid. Since the skunk is crepuscular, meaning it’s most active around dusk and dawn, that’s important. The stink badger is more nocturnal than the skunk.

Both the skunk and the stink badger have relatively short legs with sharp claws. Both are relatively small, about the size of a cat. Both are also good diggers and spend the daytime asleep in their burrows. In winter the skunk doesn’t hibernate but it does stay in its burrow more, spending most of its time asleep. This is the best way to deal with winter cold, if you ask me.

Female skunks share a den in the winter but males are usually solitary. This means the females retain a higher amount of body fat when the weather warms up, since they didn’t need to burn that fat to keep themselves warm. Researchers think this helps the females stay in better condition for a spring pregnancy. Meanwhile, males are skinnier at the beginning of the winter but by staying alone they’re less likely to contract disease or parasites.

Mating season for skunks is in spring and babies are born in early summer. They mostly stay in the burrow for about two months, then start accompanying their mother when she goes out foraging. The mother is really protective of her babies and will spray any animal that approaches.

Although the skunk can hear and smell well, it has poor vision. That’s why so many are killed by cars. The skunk’s biggest predator is the great horned owl, because owls don’t have much of a sense of smell and don’t care about being sprayed.

The skunk and the stink badger are both omnivorous and will dig up grubs and earthworms, will sometimes eat carrion, and also eat frogs, crustaceans, and other small animals, leaves and other plant parts, especially berries and nuts, and insects. The skunk especially likes bees. It has thick fur that helps protect it from stings, and will eat all the bees it can catch.

The skunk also eats other stinging insects, including the dreaded yellow jacket. That’s a type of wasp that’s common where I live, with incredibly painful stings. A few years ago I noticed a yellow jacket nest in the ground behind my garage, and that night when the yellow jackets were asleep I carefully trimmed the long grass around the nest opening to see how extensive it was. Then I made a mental note to get some yellow jacket poison the following day. When I went back out to deal with the nest the next night, it was gone. A skunk had discovered it, probably because I’d exposed it by trimming back the grass, and had dug the whole nest up to eat the yellow jackets. There wasn’t a single one left. Ever since I have been lowkey fond of skunks, although I do wish they wouldn’t spray so close to my house.

So what is skunk spray and why is it so stinky? The skunk has two anal glands that contain an oily liquid made up of sulfurous chemical compounds. If a skunk feels threatened, it will raise its tail and fluff it out as a warning. It may also hiss, stomp its feet, and pretend to charge its potential attacker. The skunk doesn’t actually want to spray if it can avoid it, though. Its anal glands only hold enough of the oil to spray a few times, and when the skunk runs out it can’t spray again for almost two weeks. But if its warnings don’t work, it will use muscles to contract the glands and spray the oily liquid more than ten feet, or 3 meters.

If you’ve only ever smelled skunk spray in the distance, you may not think it’s so bad. But the smell is horrific up close, strong enough to induce vomiting, and it can cause irritation to the skin or even temporary blindness if it gets in the eyes. And the skunk is really accurate when spraying, aiming at the face. Not only that, because it’s an oil, the spray clings to skin, hair, or fur, and it won’t just wash off. It can literally take weeks to wear off normally. If your clothes get sprayed, or your dog’s collar, the smell will never come out and you will have to throw the clothes away.

Domestic dogs get sprayed by skunks a lot. Some dogs just never learn. I once had a cat who was sprayed by a skunk too. You may have heard that you can remove the smell by washing your pet in tomato juice, but this actually doesn’t work. I asked a veterinarian how to clean up my cat, and this is what she told me. This worked great, by the way.

Mix hydrogen peroxide about half and half with warm water and add about a spoonful of dishwashing liquid. Rub the mixture into the fur thoroughly, making sure to work it in well right down to the skin. If you can tell where the spray is, concentrate on that part. Do your best not to get the mixture into your pet’s eyes, and make sure to use good warm water. Part of the reason animals hate getting bathed is because they get cold really easily once their fur is wet, so using really warm water helps. Then rinse your pet thoroughly, making sure to get all the soap out so they won’t get itchy. You may need to mix up another batch of the hydrogen peroxide, water, and soap and give the stinkiest areas another wash. After you’ve rinsed your pet thoroughly, wrap them up in a towel and gently squeeze as much of the water out of the fur as you can. Then make sure you have a dry towel to put in your pet’s bed or basket or wherever it wants to hide after its horrible bath.

In July of 2019 a research team published a report about a type of fungus that makes a chemical called pericosine A that neutralizes noxious chemicals. The researchers tested pericosine on skunk spray and discovered that it neutralized the smell harmlessly. So it’s probably just a matter of time before pericosine is marketed to veterinarians to help pet owners. Let’s hope so.

Even skunks don’t like to be sprayed, incidentally. Males fight each other during mating season and will sometimes spray each other. A skunk reacts like any other animal when it gets sprayed.

The zorilla is another stinky animal related to the skunk, although it lives in parts of Africa. It’s brown with white markings and is sometimes called the striped polecat or African skunk. It’s about the same size as a skunk or stink badger and looks and acts very similar, although it’s a carnivore and much more social than the skunk. It’s also related to the honey badger, which we talked about in episode 62. If you remember, the honey badger is also black with a broad white or silvery stripe down its back, and it can invert its anal sacs and discharge a stinky oil, although it doesn’t spray like a skunk.

It’s not really surprising that all these animals are related, since most members of the weasel family, known as mustelids, have anal scent glands that produce a strong odor. Most species just use the glands to mark their territory, though.

But are there animals who spray like skunks but aren’t related to the skunk? Many animals have anal glands for marking territory, and if threatened some animals will empty the anal glands as a form as defense. The king ratsnake will sometimes do this, as will the lesser anteater, the opossum, and others.

But there’s another animal that actually sprays a smelly substance for defense, and it’s not one you’d expect. It’s a bird called the hoopoe, along with its relative the woodhoopoe.

The woodhoopoe lives in woods, savannah, and rainforests of Africa. It looks something like a cuckoo, with a very long tail marked with white spots. It’s mostly a metallic black in color, although some species have markings in other colors. Males have longer, more curved bills than females because they eat larger insects that live in bark and rotten wood while females eat smaller insects that live mostly on leaves. In this way, mated pairs don’t compete with each other for food.

The hoopoe lives across Eurasia and parts of Africa, and while it’s related to the woodhoopoe, it looks very different. It has a long crest that it can raise and lower like a crown, and it’s a pretty tan or brown color with black and white markings. Both males and females have long, slightly curved bills that they use to catch insects and other small animals.

Female hoopoes and woodhoopoes are picky about nesting spots. The female likes to nest in dead trees in rotting wood, or sometimes in a gap in a rock wall. The female incubates her eggs alone. But animals find dead trees and crumbling walls easy to climb, so to protect her nest the female can spray a foul-smelling liquid from the gland that most birds just use to secrete preening oil. This is the case for the female hoopoe and woodhoopoe too most of the time, but after she lays her eggs the gland becomes weaponized. Not only that, when the babies hatch, they develop the same gland. The female rubs the stinky oil on her babies and on the nest to deter predators, and researchers think it may also deter parasites. If an animal approaches the nest anyway, the female can spray the oil at it. And if the female is off catching food for her babies, the babies will hiss, peck, and squirt liquid poop at the predator. At that point, most predators probably just decide to go hunt something else. After they clean up.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 062: The Honey Badger and Its Horrible Friends

It’s badger week at Strange Animals Podcast, thanks to a suggestion by Richard E.! I knew the honey badger was something special, but I had no idea how special. And by “special” I mean “terrifying.”

Shout-out to Turn of Phrases podcast just because I love it so much. It’s a short, family friendly podcast that explains the weird idioms we say without thinking about them.

A honey badger. Look at that adorable snarl!

A wolverine and its TEETH:

An American badger:

A European badger:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

I’ve been getting a bunch of great topic suggestions and I’m falling behind on addressing them, so this week I was going to cover two or three suggestions in one big episode. I started with the honey badger, though, and soon I realized this animal and some of its close relations deserved an episode to themselves.

The honey badger was suggested by Richard, who has also sent lots of other great topic suggestions I’m working on. That’s not my brother Richard, it’s a different Richard. Hello to both of you.

The honey badger sounds like it should be a cuddly Pooh-bear kind of animal that gets its hand stuck in the honey jar and its friends have to help free it. In fact, the honey badger is a terrifyingly dangerous animal that’s related to other badgers, as well as to weasels, wolverines, and otters, although not closely. One interesting thing I just found out: the European badger is not all that closely related to the American badger. In fact, the American and European badgers are about as closely related to each other as they are to the honey badger. The European badger is more closely related to the wolverine than it is the American badger and the honey badger. We’ll look at all these animals this week.

The honey badger has short legs, a broad body, a flattish head with a stubby nose, small ears and eyes, a medium-length tail, and strong claws. That’s the same rough description of the wolverine and the European and American badgers too. Its fur is black with a broad pale gray or white stripe from the head down the back, although one subspecies of honey badger is all black. The honey badger lives in Africa, India, and Southwest Asia, and while it only stands around a foot high at the shoulder, or 28 cm, its ferocity means it basically has no predators. Its skin is so thick and tough that arrows, spears, and even machetes don’t do much damage. Even small-caliber bullets can’t fully penetrate its skin. Setting a pack of dogs on a honey badger just ends up with a lot of unhappy, or possibly dead, dogs, because in addition to being ridiculously thick, the honey badger’s skin is extremely loose. If an animal bites it, the honey badger can still twist around and attack with its massive front claws and teeth. Not only that, but the honey badger has more stamina than its attacker, guaranteed, and it will continue to fight tirelessly forever.

The honey badger eats meat, some plant material like berries and roots, and pretty much anything else it can get. Most of the animals a honey badger hunts are small, rodents and frogs and things like that. It can even bite through tortoise shells with its powerful jaws, and will kill and eat even the most venomous snakes since if it does get bitten, like the mongoose, it is naturally resistant to venom. It eats all of whatever it kills, even fur, bones, and feathers. Occasionally a honey badger will chase another animal away from its kill, including lions. Yeah, even lions don’t want to mess with the honey badger—although lions do sometimes kill honey badgers, usually when a honey badger attacks it.

The honey badger gets its name not from its sweet personality, because it’s actually an ornery animal that will attack anything that comes near its burrow, but because it raids beehives—not for its honey, but for bee larvae. Like bears, which can raid beehives without worrying too much about getting stung through its thick fur, the honey badger doesn’t usually have much problem with bee stings. But sometimes there are too many bees even for the honey badger, in which case it has a secret anti-bee weapon.

The honey badger has an anal pouch that holds secretions that are really, really stinky. Skunk stinky. It can turn the pouch inside out to release the stink, which may stun or calm the bees the way a beekeeper calms bees with smoke.

As if all this isn’t fearsome enough, the honey badger is also intelligent and shows occasional tool use, like moving a log to stand on to reach prey. It also digs extremely well. And it’s not a slow animal at all. In fact, it can be kind of frenetic like its weasel cousins. And when it attacks animals larger than itself, like lions, it goes for the scrotum.

Baby cheetahs are born with broad white stripes down their backs, and some researchers think that coloring mimics the honey badger’s coloring and helps keep potential predators away.

The honey badger is called the ratel in South Africa, because of the sound it makes. I tried really hard to find audio of a honey badger that wasn’t overlaid with music or people talking, without luck. The closest I have is a honey badger attacking a cobra, but mostly what you hear is the cobra hissing. The cobra is not having a good day. You can hear the honey badger chatter a little, but it just sounds like a couple of squeaks. Here it is, for what it’s worth.

[honey badger and cobra sounds]

The wolverine is another animal in the Mustelidae family, and like its cousin the honey badger, it has a reputation for being ferocious. It also has a way better name than the honey badger, with an X-Men character, a bunch of sports teams, and a Swedish metal band named after it. On the other hand, it’s also sometimes called a skunk bear or nasty cat because of its anal scent glands, which it uses to mark its territory. It mostly lives in Alaska and northern Canada, Siberia, and parts of Norway, Sweden, and Finland.

The wolverine is short and broad like the honey badger and is about the same size, or a bit larger, but it looks much more like a tiny bear. It’s light brown with darker brown or black legs, muzzle, tail, and back. It eats a lot of carrion, but it will also kill animals, from squirrels and mice all the way up to moose and caribou. It will also eat some plant material, like seeds and berries. The wolverine has a thick hide like the honey badger, but it’s not quite in the honey badger’s league. Bears and wolves will sometimes kill wolverines.

The wolverine lives in cold climates. Females dig dens in the snow to have their babies in late winter and early spring. Its fur is thick and water-repellent, and in old-timey times its fur was prized and used to line parkas and other clothing. Shout-out to the Turn of Phrases podcast for putting old-timey times into my everyday vocabulary. The wolverine also has a single tooth in the back of the jaw that sticks sideways into the mouth and helps it tear off meat from frozen carcasses. A wolverine will cache carcasses at the beginning of winter, which gives it food when the snow is deep and there’s not much else to eat.

The wolverine was once much more widespread, but as the last ice age ended about 12,000 years ago its range became more northerly. It’s also been trapped and killed for its fur and to stop it from killing livestock. But male wolverines in particular can range widely, and occasionally one strays farther south. In 2016 a tagged wolverine was tracked as it traveled more than 800 miles, or almost 1300 km, through Wyoming, Colorado, and North Dakota, where it was killed by a ranch-hand.

In 1992 and 1994 a pair of wolverines were seen repeatedly in parts of Wales and England, and a dead one was reported on the side of the road, apparently killed by a car. Only about a hundred wolverines are kept in zoos, and a zoo would notice if a couple of its wolverines disappeared. Wolverines don’t make good pets, to say the least, so they probably weren’t escaped pets. The general consensus is that they must have been escapees from a fur farm—but wolverines don’t do well in captivity and rarely breed successfully even in zoos. So where they came from is a mystery, and unfortunately no one thought to retrieve the body or even take a photograph so it could be positively IDed.

Lastly, we’ll look at the relatively mild-mannered European badger and American badger. They look very similar, but as I noted at the beginning of the episode, they’re not all that closely related. The badger has a wide body that’s mostly gray with short legs that are darker gray or black. The tail is not stubby but not especially long. The face is black with white markings. The European badger has a broad white stripe that runs from the tip of its nose to between its ears, and a white stripe on both cheeks. The American badger has a thin white stripe that starts farther back on the nose and runs over the top of the head and down the neck, and black and white striped cheeks. Both are strong diggers that live in burrows.

The American badger is found throughout western and central North America, from parts of Canada to northern Mexico. It eats a lot of mice, groundhogs, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, pocket gophers, and basically any little animal it can dig up from its burrows. It also eats lots of snakes, including rattlesnakes. Like its cousin the honey badger it likes to eat bee larvae and honey, and it will eat some plant material too. It also will eat skunks. Not many things want to eat skunks.

Occasionally a badger will team up with a coyote to hunt. That’s not scary at all. Badgers are aggressive, but certainly nowhere near as ferocious as a honey badger or even a wolverine. It’s a bit smaller than the honey badger and wolverine.

In 2017, a research team studying scavenging behaviors of various animals inadvertently learned a lot about the badger. The team had staked out calf carcasses and set up camera traps to document which animals came to eat the carcasses. One of the cameras recorded a badger burying a calf carcass deep enough that it would be safe from other scavengers and would remain cool underground for the badger to eat it later. It took the badger five days and a lot of work, but since the calf was considerably larger and heavier than the badger, it would have a lot of meat to snack on later in the winter. Another of the cameras caught a different badger attempting to bury another calf carcass, but that badger wasn’t successful. Researchers suspect this caching activity may be common among badgers, but no one knew about it because badgers are mostly nocturnal. While ranchers typically dislike badgers, burying large carcasses is beneficial to ranchers since it minimizes the spread of disease to cattle and other livestock.

The European badger is much more social than its American cousin, which is mostly solitary. It lives in groups in complex burrows called setts. A badger doesn’t just poop wherever it happens to be, it uses a latrine, and it may have more than one latrine in its territory just as it may have more than one sett. It also likes to change out the bedding material in its burrows, taking old bedding out and bringing in clean, fresh bedding. In winter, when good bedding material isn’t available, it may take its old bedding out on sunny days to air, then retrieve it later. It’s like this animal was invented to star in children’s storybooks. If you told me badgers routinely wear little flowered aprons and use tiny brooms to sweep their burrows, I wouldn’t bat an eye. Sometimes a red fox will live in part of a badger’s burrow, and I picture the fox wearing a neat tweed suit. He probably pays rent to the badger family.

The badger hibernates during the worst part of the winter, although when winters are mild, it may only sleep for part of the winter or not at all.

The European badger does eat meat, but it also eats a lot of plant material, especially fruit and grains, but also clover and even grass if it has to. It mostly eats earthworms, but will also catch insects, small mammals like mice, hedgehogs, and young rabbits, snails and slugs, and tortoises. It also likes bee and wasp larvae and will eat wasp nests, ignoring the stings it receives. Sometimes a badger will kill a lamb or break into a chicken coop and kill lots of chickens, but that’s rare and usually only happens when other food is scarce.

Unfortunately, the badger has a bad reputation in Great Britain as a carrier of bovine tuberculosis. It does carry the disease, but recent studies show that it doesn’t appear to infect cattle. Cattle catch TB from other cattle, not from badgers. Culling badgers to stop the spread of TB among cattle doesn’t help either the cattle or the badgers, since after a badger cull, other badgers move into the dead badgers’ former territory, bringing TB with them. It’s very difficult to eradicate a disease from a wild animal population, but it is completely possible to eradicate a disease from domestic animals. In Wales and Scotland, cattle tuberculosis is on the decline due to frequent testing for the disease, while in England, where the primary treatment for TB is to go out and kill a bunch of badgers, it’s on the rise. So leave the badgers alone. Mrs. Badger is busy busy washing linens and hanging them to dry on tiny clotheslines while Mr. Badger is repairing the white picket fence where he grows his prize-winning dahlias, and the Badger children are helping Auntie Badger make scones for Mr. Fox’s tea.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!