Skunk, a mammal found only in the Americas and noted for its offensive odor. Skunks are black or blackish with various types of white markings and have long, bushy tails. Adult skunks range in length from 4 1/2 to 19 inches (11 to 48 cm), not including a tail that is 2 1/2 to 19 inches (6 to 48 cm) long. Weight ranges from a half pound to 10 pounds (225 g to 4.5 kg). There are 10 species: two species of spotted skunks, a striped skunk, a hooded skunk, and six species of hog-nosed skunks. Skunks are sometimes called polecats.
Skunks produce an unpleasant-smelling oil in a pair of glands located under the skin below the tail. The oil may be squirted at will, in extreme cases for a distance of 12 feet (3.7 m) or more. Skunks use this liquid for defense; they usually squirt it only when frightened. The liquid can cause intense smarting and burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and mouth.
Skunks usually live in burrows they line with vegetation. Several skunks may share the same burrow. Skunks eat both plants and animals and are active mainly at night. Some skunks found in cold areas sleep through much of the winter. The young are usually born in the spring. Litter size is usually four or five.
The most common skunk in the United States is the striped skunk, found in Mexico, throughout the United States, and into southern Canada. It is about 12 to 18 inches (30 to 46 cm) long with a tail 5 to 19 inches (13 to 48 cm) long.
Skunks are inquisitive, somewhat playful animals, and people keep them as pets even when the scent glands are not removed. (Skunks, however, can be carriers of rabies.) Skunk fur is used to make various garments and trimmings.
Skunks belong to the family Mustelidae. There are three genera—Spilogale (spotted skunks), Conepatus (hog-nosed skunks), and Mephitis (striped and hooded skunks). The striped skunk is M. mephitis.