Despite being both extremely fluffy and very cute, spotted skunks don’t get a lot of love – perhaps due to their impressively stinky defense mechanism (more on that later). However, those of you who enjoy the small mammalian gymnasts will be pleased to know researchers have just nearly doubled their number of species, from four to seven, paving the way for better conservation efforts.
The number of species of spotted skunks has been hard to pin down, ranging from two to 14 over the years before resting on four, but a new study in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution has analyzed skunk DNA and found there are enough differences to make seven separate spotted species. However, getting up close and personal with skunks to study them is not easy.
If you’ve ever seen a skunk, it’s most likely (before you ran away) you saw a striped skunk (Mephitis): think the questionably amorous Pepé Le Pew. Spotted skunks (Spilogale) may be smaller, spottier (technically their stripes are broken), and more elusive than their urban-dwelling cousins but they win for being the most extra when deploying skunks’ famous stinky spray: they do a handstand first.
“Spotted skunks are sometimes called the acrobats of the skunk world,” explained Adam Ferguson of Chicago’s Field Museum, one of the study's authors.
So how do you study small elusive critters that don’t like you getting too close? By putting up "Wanted" posters (essentially, dead or alive but most likely roadkill), according to the team.
“We made wanted posters that we distributed across Texas in case people trapped them or found them as roadkill,” Ferguson explained. “People recognize 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.”
By analyzing the DNA of any specimens collected, as well as samples in museums to fill in the gaps in the spotted skunk family tree, the researchers discovered that some samples that had been considered the same species were in fact genetically very different. This allowed them to rearrange the skunk groups, adding three more and even resurrecting some species names that had long been out of use.
Meet your new spotted skunks: Spilogale leucoparia, the desert spotted skunk found in the Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts and Mexican Plateau; S. gracilis, the Rocky Mountain spotted skunk; S. angustifrons, the Southern spotted skunk found in the southern half of Mexico; S. yucatanensis, the Yucatán spotted skunk; S. interrupta, the Plains spotted skunk found in the Great Plains of the US; S. putorius, the Alleghanian spotted skunk found in the Appalachian Mountains, Florida, and most of the southeastern coastline of the US; and S. pygmaea, the Pygmy spotted skunk found in Western Mexico.
Among the new species is the Plains spotted skunk, previously classified as a subspecies, but now categorized as a species of its own. Conservationists have long petitioned for the plains spotted skunk to be listed as endangered due to declining populations over the last century, and Ferguson thinks being a distinctly genetically different species will help its cause.
“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,” he said. “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.”