Wanted: Spotted skunks doing handstands

These posters don’t show wanted criminals. They call for the capture of handstanding spotted skunks – and it’s all in the pursuit of science.  

You might picture skunks as striped black and white, like the famous Pepé Le Pew. But they have another endangered cousin adorned with spots. These skunks are smaller than a cat and stand on their front legs in a balletic handstand when they spray.

And animal on its front paws. It is looking at the camera. Its bushy tail is up in the air and it is black with white spots. There are trees in the background.
A spotted skunk doing its signature handstand. Credit: Jerry W. Dragoo.

“Spotted skunks are sometimes called the acrobats of the skunk world,” says Adam Ferguson, who began collecting specimens used in this project while working at Angelo State University in Texas, US.

Skunk wanted poster

Researchers suspected that there may be more species of the endangered spotted skunks than they knew about. The problem was that, they required more specimens for DNA collection to confim this. So how did they acquire the specimens? By putting out a wanted poster, of course.

“We made posters that we distributed across Texas in case people trapped them or found them as roadkill,” says Ferguson.

A wanted poster. It says wanted in capital letters at the top. There are three pictures of skunks and text below that says "specimens needed for on going research at texas tech university"
A “wanted” poster asking for roadkill skunk specimens to be used in research. Credit: Adam Ferguson

“People recognise spotted skunks as something special, because you don’t see them every day, so they’re not the kind of roadkill that people just paint over.

“If we’re trying to tell the full story of skunk evolution we need as many samples as we can.”

With the help of the public, the team were able to collect 203 spotted skunk specimens. They also filled any gaps with other museum samples.

New skunk species identified

The team extracted and analysed the DNA of the spotted skunks and found that there were seven different species. The team described the species in their paper, published in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

“We figured there had to be some surprises when it came to spotted skunk diversity, because the genus as a whole had never been properly analysed using genetic data,” says Ferguson.

“North America is one of the most-studied continents in terms of mammals, and carnivores are one of the most-studied groups.

“Everyone thinks we know everything about mammalian carnivore systematics, so being able to redraw the skunk family tree is very exciting.”

Read more: When their world burns, what do predators do?

“I was able to extract DNA from century-old museum samples, and it was really exciting to see who those individuals were related to. It turns out that one of those was a currently unrecognised, endemic species in the Yucatan [Mexico],” says lead author Molly McDonough, of Chicago State University and the Field Museum.

Three people stand in a room looking at an open drawer. There are skunks arranged in the drawer
Adam Ferguson in the Field Museum’s collections with spotted skunk specimens. Credit: Adam Ferguson

Protecting vulnerable spotted skunks

This particular species was the size of a squirrel but cn now wear its species badge with honour.

Another new species, ehe plains spotted skunk, is sadly declining. To help, conservationists petitioned for the skunks. Unfortunately, their prevous allocation as just a subspecies stopped this from happening.

This is because less conservation support is given to subspecies (e.g. a corgi vs a jack russell) than distinct species (e.g. a dog vs a wolf). Thankfully, this clarification may help to improve the lives of the Yucatan and Plains spotted skunks.

“If a subspecies is in trouble, there’s sometimes less emphasis on protecting it because it’s not as distinct an evolutionary lineage as a species,” says Ferguson.

“We’ve shown that the plains spotted skunks are distinct at the species level, which means they’ve been evolving independently of the other skunks for a long time. Once something has a species name, it’s easier to conserve and protect.”

An animal standing on a stink and grass. It has a bushy tail nd black fur with white spots
Spotted skunk. Credit: Robby Fleischman

The new DNA may also hold some insights into their strange reproductive biology.

“Besides the fact that they do handstands, the coolest thing about spotted skunks is that some of them practice delayed egg implantation—they breed in the fall, but they don’t give birth until the spring. They delay implanting the egg in the uterus, it just sits in suspension for a while,” says Ferguson.

“We want to know why some species have delayed implantation and others don’t, and figuring out how these different species of skunks evolved can help us do that.”

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