Skunks may not be the friendliest of visitors, but their role in society is bigger than most know. From eating insects and rodents to foraging on old plant materials, the popular mammals serve a very good purpose.
Yet, while these animals hang out under porches or even stroll through town, little research looks at their everyday living patterns. That is why a team of researchers at Southern Illinois University Carbondale are conducting a detailed study on striped skunks in Southern Illinois to build a better understanding of the habitats and behaviors of the small creatures.
The research starts with Clay Nielsen, professor in the forestry degree program and the cooperative wildlife research laboratory at SIU, and Augustin Jimenez, associate professor in the zoology degree program. As a second-year PhD. student in agricultural sciences, Katelyn Amspacher also works closely on the project.
After noticing the hole in research surrounding the common striped skunk in the Midwest, the team set out to trap local skunks and monitor their habitats and behaviors. Starting last fall they began trapping on the SIU campus, in local Carbondale neighborhoods and streets, at Giant City State Park and at the Touch of Nature Environmental Center.
“Specifically, our goals are to examine striped-skunk survival across that range,” Amspacher said. “We are really interested in learning about what types of habitats they are using, where they are going and just more about their life in general. We are also evaluating how their behaviors might change between more urban areas and national forests.”
The team also looks at the impact humans have on skunks and their natural habitats. As a generalist animal that can be found anywhere from Canada to Texas, striped skunks have adapted to human presence and have incorporated themselves well into civilization.
“Skunks have great personalities,” Amspacher said. “They even used to be popular as pets.”
The trapping started last spring and will commence again in the upcoming warmer months, with the goal of trapping 20 to 30 skunks this semester. The team will be trapping for the next 12 to 18 months, watching the animals in both Carbondale and those closer to protected parks and forests.
“We have traps set in places that skunks might pass through, such as game trails,” Amspacher said. “Once we have a skunk trapped, we put it under anesthesia for a few minutes to place a radio collar on the animal.”
The group then monitors the skunk’s activities and visits them between three and five times a week, both during the day and at night.
Since the skunks normally sleep during the day, the researchers are able to see where they are denning up and even put game cameras on them periodically. At night, when the skunks are active, the group uses triangulation to evaluate and track the skunks without disturbing their normal behaviors.
The triangulation works by taking a GPS point and a baring to the direction of the skunk in at least three different points. The group then plots those points and estimates where the skunks will be. Once the team determines where the skunks are and how they travel, they can develop an understanding of the skunk’s home ranges, along with their feeding and mating locations.
Skunks often get a bad reputation due to their smelly nature. However, when a skunk is startled, their first reaction is not to spray, Amspacher explained.
They usually hunker down and watch the intruder to evaluate the threat. This gives the team time to carefully handle and mark the skunks without everyone leaving the field in need of a strong bath.
“We work really hard to keep the skunks as calm as possible through the whole process,” Amspacher said. “We don’t want to disturb them, we just want to watch and observe their behaviors.”
Skunks each have unique coloring and markings, which helps the researchers identify them in the tracking and monitoring process. In the few brief minutes a skunk is under anesthesia, the researchers take pictures, basic measurements and place a small collar on the animals. When finished, they create a human barricade to ensure the skunks safely exit back into their natural environment.
In addition to studying the habitats of these skunks, the group is looking at the frequency of Canine Distemper Virus across the area. This common disease can be present in variety of animals, from skunks and raccoons, to domesticated cats and dogs.
“Typically, about 55 percent of striped-skunks in northern Illinois have this virus,” Amspacher said.
The team is working with local veterinarians to see if there is a transfer of the virus from striped skunks to dogs.
“We would also like to sequence the genome of the virus in the skunks, along with a study on local dogs who are coming down with the virus,” Amspacher said. “We are doing this to see if there is a transfer going on between the animals.”
For dogs, this type of virus usually goes in cycles, with outbreaks occurring every few years. The effects vary animal to animal, but for striped skunks, it is often fatal and can be deadly in dogs if left untreated.
This research project fits under SIU’s Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory, and is funded through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The trapping is set to continue until 2020, and then the team will analyze the data and publish their findings.
Coming from a background of research with a variety of small animals, Amspacher hopes this project serves as a foundation for understanding the human impact on animal life and builds a better base for others who encounter the often-underrated creatures.