Striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis) are found throughout the United States and are known around the world for their bold color patterns and noxious spray defenses. As a model system for aposematism and defensive behavior in mammals, striped skunks' notorious noxious spray defenses are advertised by bold black-and-white coloration and signaled behaviorally by tail erection, foot stomping, charging, hissing, and aiming.
The sprayed liquid is a mixture of sulfur-containing compounds that are produced in the anal glands and sprayed out papilla just inside the sphincter. These thiols are horribly powerful when they contact the eyes and nose of potential predators, especially dangerous mammalian carnivores like coyotes and mountain lions. For this reason, skunks are rarely if ever attacked and killed by other mammal predators, and their main source of predation comes from owls, which have reduced senses of smell and can fly in and attack silently from above.
In our lab, we are interested in studying how these defenses evolved, how much do they vary between individuals, how do stripe patterns co-vary with noxiousness as a measure of signal honest, and how does having a powerful defensive weapon influence perceptions of fear in skunks. We approach these questions in a variety of ways.
First, we have an ongoing 5-year skunk trapping project where we can mark, measure, sample, track, and collect anal secretions from wild skunks.
Second, we conduct experiments of skunk behavioral responses to predator cues in the wild (visual, auditory, and olfactory), including the use of our robotic "Obi-Wan Coyote" model.
Third, we conduct museum studies of skunk pelts to study how their coloration varies over space and time and the mechanical properties of the the color signal.