Skunks and Porcupines, Masters of Defence

Skunks, in contrast to porcupines, are positively cuddly with soft, luxuriant fur, just begging to be stroked.

January 12, 2018 | | Notes from the Wild

Chances are you can outrun a skunk or a porcupine. These mammals are even slower than we are. But don’t attempt to prove your superior speed by running after them.

Both skunks and porcupines have evolved stunning defences that have rendered speed unnecessary. They conduct their affairs in an unhurried fashion despite living among fleet-footed and toothy predators such as bears, wolves, coyotes and foxes.

Skunks, in contrast to porcupines, are positively cuddly with soft, luxuriant fur, just begging to be stroked.

Skunks, in contrast to porcupines, are positively cuddly with soft, luxuriant fur, just begging to be stroked.

Skunks and porcupines, of course, protect themselves in very different ways. Porcupines bristle with 30,000 quills that can penetrate flesh more effectively than hypodermic needles. These quills detach easily upon contact with a canine’s nose or a bear’s paw.

Skunks, in contrast to porcupines, are positively cuddly with soft, luxuriant fur, just begging to be stroked. But this isn’t recommended. Being squirted by a noxious cocktail of chemicals, sprayed from twin nozzles near the skunk’s anus, would be your reward.

These jets of spray can travel at least three metres and can temporarily blind would-be predators. The staying power of the stink is impressive, but apparently there are easy ways to neutralize it. (Tomato juice isn’t one of them!)

Alas, in nature, as in the fantasy world of fictional crime-fighting heroes, defence is never absolute. Superman’s nemesis is kryptonite; Sherlock Holmes is tormented by the diabolical Moriarty.

Porcupines bristle with 30,000 quills that can penetrate flesh more effectively than hypodermic needles.

Porcupines bristle with 30,000 quills that can penetrate flesh more effectively than hypodermic needles.

A porcupine’s arch foe is the fisher. This large weasel attacks the face and unprotected belly of the porcupine, avoiding the sharp quills. And a skunk’s nemesis? The great-horned owl.  With a limited sense of smell, these aerial tigers  are partial to skunk on the menu. Attacking silently from above likely protects their eyes from the skunk’s spray.

In fable, the slow and steady tortoise beats the speedy hare in a race. In real life the plodding skunk and porcupine also triumph. (Well, most of the time!)

About the Author More by Don Scallen

Don Scallen enjoys sharing his love of nature through his writing and presentations. Check out his blog "Notes from the Wild".

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