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The handsome but offensive Patagonia skunk

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By Igor I. Solar
Posted Apr 5, 2013 in Environment
There are four species of skunks belonging to the genus Conepatus. All live in the Americas, from the southern United States to the southernmost tip of South America. One of these species is the Humboldt’s skunk (Latin: Conepatus humboldtii; Spanish: Zorrillo de Humboldt) whose distribution is limited to the Patagonia regions of Chile and Argentina.
Also known as Patagonian hog-nosed skunk because of its bare and relatively flat nose, C. humboldtii is a small to medium size animal weighing in the range of 1 to 3 kilograms. The males are usually larger than the females. From a distance, it looks quite attractive. The animal is mostly black. It has a reddish-brown dorsal coloration with two symmetric white stripes that start on the forehead and extend on each side of the back towards the tail. The tail is large and furry.
Patagonian skunks are relatively abundant. They inhabit areas of bushy vegetation and grassland steppes where they find their food consisting mainly of insects, but they also often eat fruits, seeds, small invertebrates, amphibians, birds and even small mammals such as rodents.
Humboldt’s hog-nosed skunk – Road to Puerto Natales  Chilean Patagonia.
Humboldt’s hog-nosed skunk – Road to Puerto Natales, Chilean Patagonia.
Rod Barria
Besides their characteristic white dorsal stripes, perhaps the best-known feature of skunks is their anal scent glands. Skunks have two glands, one on each side of the anus. The glands produce a combination of organic chemical compounds, similar to alcohol, known as thiols or mercaptans. The mixture has a highly offensive smell that can be described as a mishmash of the odors of rotten eggs, garlic, and burnt rubber.
Muscles located next to the scent glands allow them to deliver a squirt which the skunk can shoot with great accuracy to a distance of almost 3 meters. With such equipment and ability, they can use their foul smelling spray as an effective defensive weapon. The chemical not only has an awful stench, but if the spray reaches the face of an attacker can cause severe irritation and even temporary blindness.
Humboldt’s hog-nosed skunk - Torres del Paine National Park  Chilean Patagonia.
Humboldt’s hog-nosed skunk - Torres del Paine National Park, Chilean Patagonia.
Rod Barria
While travelling in the Patagonia regions in August 1833, the British naturalist Charles Darwin met the Humboldt’s hog-nose skunk. He describes his encounter at the end of chapter IV of his book "The Voyage of the Beagle”:
“We saw also a couple of Zorrillos, or skunks — odious animals, which are far from uncommon. In general appearance, the Zorrillo resembles a polecat, but it is rather larger and much thicker in proportion. Conscious of its power, it roams by day about the open plain, and fears neither dog nor man. If a dog is urged to the attack, its courage is instantly checked by a few drops of the fetid oil, which brings on violent sickness and running at the nose. Whatever is once polluted by it, is for ever useless. Azara says the smell can be perceived at a league distant; more than once, when entering the harbour of Monte Video, the wind being off shore, we have perceived the odour on board the Beagle. Certain it is that every animal most willingly makes room for the Zorrillo.”
Perhaps the internationally most famous skunk is the fictional character Pepé Le Pew, the French stripped skunk from Looney Tunes Show. Pepé is an eternal romantic who, despite his terrible scent, rambles around Paris gardens during springtime, always looking for love.
Have you ever come across a skunk and experienced its awful stench? If you have, tell us about it in a comment below.
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Note: Thanks to Mr. Roderich Barría of Punta Arenas, Chile, who kindly shared with me his photographs of Patagonian skunks.

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