The family of foul-smelling skunks just got bigger

According to new research based on hundreds of DNA samples, there are actually more species of skunks than previously thought. Like polecats, these animals spray a smelly liquid in case of danger. And generally, they warn you by doing a handstand.

Black fur, white stripes, smelly fluid secretions – anyone can identify the striped skunk, the most common in North America. The spotted skunk, smaller (less than 1 kg), is a little more inconspicuous. Finally, it is a way of speaking. Indeed, the latter distinguish themselves by playing the pear tree as a warning before they start to spray their famous liquid with the putrid smell. So, if you see one of those skunks planting their arms before lifting their butt, you should probably take a step back, however impressive the maneuver is.

By discreet, you mean “less studied”. And for good reason, spotted skunks tend to do everything possible to keep people at bay, to the point that researchers have long debated the number of species. Some mentioned two, while others had fourteen. Finally, everyone agreed on the number four. In fact, there are quite a few more.

At least seven species

In a study, the results of which are published in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, a team examined more than two hundred DNA samples taken from spotted skunks, from Canada to Costa Rica. According to these analyzes, led by Molly McDonough, phylogenomic at Chicago State University, there are actually seven species.

This new finding shows that spotted skunks have diversified more than their close relatives, striped skunks and oriental pig-nosed skunks (Conepatus leuconotus). For scientists, there could be a connection with the size of these mammals, which are the smallest representatives of this caniform family of mammals.

“We’re sort of speculating that they are more rodent-like,” says Dr. Ferguson, referring to the inability of these animals to travel very far and their relatively rapid reproductive cycles. These factors appear to have allowed spotted skunks to branch out into new species during the last ice age, as the North American climate changed.

skunksCredit: Robby Heischman

Different gestation periods

The researchers also point out that six of these seven species can be separated into two groups (or clades), one located further east, and the other further west. The seventh species (named Spilogale yucatanensis) would be a little “apart”, because it originates from the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico.

The biggest distinction between the two groups is that they seem to reproduce in different ways. In the clade located further east, females tend to mate in March or April to give birth in May or June (gestation of 50 to 65 days). In the west, they usually breed in the fall, around September or October, then give birth in April or May (total gestation period of 180 to 200 days).

How to explain such a difference in the gestation period? For the researchers, “western skunks” could use a strategy known as delayed implantation. In this process, a fertilized egg enters a period of dormancy before it develops. The technique, proposed by other species, often conserves resources and survives seasonal food shortages. The young will then be born when conditions are more favorable.

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