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Animals Plus Stripes Can Often Equal Yikes, Says Researcher

Published: January 15, 2013

In urban environments like Southern California, wild creatures continue to try to reclaim their lost home territory that humans have built upon.

Subsequently, we’ve learned to regard different animals with different reactions. Rabbits and squirrels can seem charming unless they munch on our gardens; possums and raccoons look interesting until they start hissing at us; while skunks, coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions evoke anxiety.

Just why do skunks have stripes and noxious spray and other animals have distinct colors, horns or other defense mechanisms that often warn potential predators to back off? That’s what Theodore (Ted) Stankowich, a new assistant professor in CSULB’s Biological Sciences Department, wants to know.

A native of Whittier, Stankowich joined CSULB in fall after earning his B.A. at Cornell in biological sciences and Ph.D. at UC Davis in animal behavior, where his doctoral dissertation examined how Colombian black-tailed deer recognize predators and know when to flee. He then became the Darwin Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which is a two-year teaching and research post, and also was a teaching fellow at Harvard.

Some of his past research examined the evolution of horns in female ungulates such as cattle, deer, antelopes and camels. Males have horns to fight for mates and for protection, but why do some females? He learned that females of species that are more exposed in their environment have a higher risk of predation and tend to have horns for defense, whereas other females use horns to demonstrate territoriality.

More recently, he’s turned to studying the evolution of bold coloration in mammalian carnivores by using comparative analyses of the huge volume of natural history data published on wild animals—a technique he said is growing among behaviorists.

Some of his findings were that animals that spray tend to have higher predator risk from mammalian carnivores but lower risk from birds of prey. “It’s hard to spray a bird,” he noted. Other species with high risk from bird predators but less risk from mammals tend to be more social, enabling “more eyes on the skies.”

In developing his new laboratory at CSULB, he plans to enhance his computer-based studies with field research to observe animals. He makes it clear that as an animal behaviorist, he never wants to harm an animal.

One of his forthcoming study projects is how skunks use their defenses. “Skunks are interesting animals to study,” he said. Most people are familiar with the obvious black and white variety, but there also are spotted skunks in Southern California that have blotchy fur, he said. “They’re cryptic (camouflaged) from afar but conspicuous up close.”

“Skunks give a lot of warning signs like stamping their feet, hissing and raising their tails‚” before letting loose their potent scent, he said. Yet he wonders, “Why are dogs so dumb when dealing with skunks? Many dogs get repeatedly sprayed,” so another aspect of his work will look at which dog breeds learn faster to avoid skunk encounters—something their coyote brethren already understand.

students on campus
PHOTO BY VICTORIA SANCHEZ
Theodore (Ted) Stankowich

He’s also fascinated by striped weasels in northern Africa which have similar characteristics of being black with white stripes and the ability to spray, but evolved independently from skunks and are infrequently seen, and additionally is collaborating with colleague Tim Caro at UC Davis on understanding zebra stripes.

On a practical note, pet owners dread having their animals being “skunked,” but Stankowich says the commonly recommended bath in tomato juice doesn’t really help. “It just covers up the smell with a tomato aroma,” he said. He recommends a recipe developed by chemist Paul Krebaum (http://home.earthlink.net/~skunkremedy/home) of one quart of three percent hydrogen peroxide; 1/4 cup of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and a teaspoon of liquid hand soap (e.g., Softsoap, Ivory, etc.), plus one quart of tap water if needed for larger animals.