Nature: Is that Skunk?

Sun, 01/25/2009 - 8:00pm

Skunk mother and kits

Jerry Dragoo

It’s a familiar but mysterious creature in woods and neighborhoods all across America. Its infamous weapon is one of the most awful scents in all of nature. Now, intrepid researchers and cameramen track skunks day and night across California, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Ohio, even Martha’s Vineyard, uncovering how they hunt, forage, mate and raise amazingly cute babies — all the things they’re up to when they’re not spraying the local dog. And yes, the remarkable secrets of that stink will be revealed! Nature: Is That Skunk? airs Sunday, January 25 at 8 p.m. on WXXI-TV 21 (cable 11) and WXXI-HD (cable 1011 and DT 21.1).

“There’s more to skunks than meets the nose,” says Fred Kaufman, executive producer of Nature. “The truth is they are actually sensitive, communal creatures with little interest in interacting with anyone.”

The one man born for the job of unraveling the potent mystery is evolutionary biologist Jerry Dragoo of the University of New Mexico. As an undergraduate, about twenty-five years ago, his assignment was to trap and analyze skunks. Dragoo sat by the cage patiently with one of his captured creatures, when suddenly he felt a drizzle, like rain. His subject had both ends pointed at him, yet there was no telltale smell. That was, until Dragoo returned to class a couple of days later and was kicked out of the building. It turns out that Dragoo’s skunk was indeed “fully loaded,” but its researcher had virtually no sense of smell!
Much like Dragoo, skunks are in a class by themselves. Often mistaken as relatives of the weasel, DNA studies have shown they’re from their own unique family branch of carnivores dubbed Mephitidae, after a word meaning “stink.” While people are most familiar with the striped skunk, three other species live in North America – the hog nosed, hooded, and spotted skunks. Dragoo has studied them all.