Skunk Tracks and Sign
Skunk Tracks and Sign: Sometimes Better Than the Real Thing
It was not apparent at first that the two lean figures in the moonlight were avid trackers. But as their walk slowed, as their headlamps turned on, and as their bodies stooped to stare at the dusty ground, it became clear that these men were not looking for a lost contact lens. They were my fellow Anake Outdoor School classmates Trevor Ose and Byron Rot, and they were snooping around our campsite in the oak woodlands east of the San Francisco Bay. Though it was past dark, they simply had to investigate a rumor of some interesting tracks crossing over a culvert in a path. Sure enough, Bryon and Trevor found them, like mini-grizzly bear tracks there in the dust.
“Didja hear that?” Trevor asked Byron, pointing down at the culvert. Before Byron could give an answer, Trevor was on his belly, his lamp illuminating the inside of the small concrete pipe. Staring straight at upside down Trevor was the maker of the tracks: a cool, calm and collected striped skunk! Lucky for Trevor (and the rest of us on the two week expedition), Ms. Skunk was unable to turn around in the narrow tunnel and thus had to bottle up her foul-smelling wrath.
Crazy claws, forward fingers
Skunks are nocturnal, solitary insectivores. Like both mustelids (members of the weasel family) and bears, skunks have five toes on front and hind feet. The hallmark of skunk tracks are the long claws of the front feet, which register much further ahead of the front digits than compared with the hind claws and hind digits. This is because the front claws are used more in digging. Skunks’ digits tend to all be fairly parallel, pointing forward, as opposed to a mustelid’s digits, which fan out. See other details in the drawing of skunk tracks below:
Skunks use a variety of different gaits: loping, galloping, direct register walk, bound, overstep walk—they do it all! What this means is that you cannot rely on the pattern of skunk tracks as primary identification evidence for skunks, as you would, for example, with a raccoon, who typically uses a severe overstep walk.
a family all their own
Skunks used to be in the Mustelid family, but in recent years they have been classified as their own separate family: Mephitidae. In the United States, there are several species of skunk. Both front and hind skunk tracks are typically similar in size, and an individual track is generally slightly longer than it is wide.
Consult this table for a breakdown of which skunks you’d find where and the approximate length of their tracks:
Approx. Track Lengths (including claws)
|Striped Skunk||All of US||1-1/2 - 2"|
|Western Spotted Skunk||Rocky Mountain states and westward||1 - 1-1/2"|
|Eastern Spotted Skunk||East of Rocky Mountain states||1 - 1-1/2"|
|Hooded Skunk||Far southwest: parts of AZ, NM, TX||1-1/2 - 2"|
|Pygmy Spotted Skunk||Far southwest: parts of AZ, NM, TX||1/2 - 1"|
|Western and Eastern Hognose Skunks||Far southwest: parts of AZ, NM, TX||2 - 2-3/4"|
For more specific measurements on each species’ feet length and width, consult Mark Elbroch’s “Mammal Tracks and Sign”
skunky digs, skunky scats
Since skunks love insects, other sign you’ll find relates to these 6-legged creatures. Look for excavated ground nests of bees or logs and stumps that have been torn at. Skunks’ tubular scats are fragile since they are typically made up of dozens of exoskeletons. Striped skunk scats are from 3/8 to ¾ inch in diameter, and spotted skunks are about ¼ inch.
And of course, almost anyone can tell a skunk by its smell, which they can spray up to twenty feet! Good luck tracking these creatures, and pray that if you are exploring any culverts you pop your head in the correct end!
Photo Credits: Mac McNair, Connor O’Malley, Erin Campbell and Ted Packard
Mammal Tracks and Sign by Mark Elbroch
Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest by Dave Moskowitz