Skunks are notorious for the pungent-smelling spray that they use to defend themselves against threats from other animals or people. Skunk spray is a thiol, an organic compound whose main ingredient is sulfur. Sulfur has a rotten egg smell that gives skunk spray its odor. Thiols are added to odorless natural gas so that leaks can be detected by smell. The thiol in skunk spray is so potent that it can be smelled up to a half-mile away.
The spray is produced in the skunk’s anal glands. It is made constantly, but slowly. Using it once could deplete the store of the liquid, and it could take up to 10 days to replace it. During that time, the skunk would be very vulnerable to predators, such as wolves, badgers, coyotes, and great horned owls.
Skunks use their spray sparingly. It is never used in fights with other skunks over territory. They reserve its use only for predators that do not back away when the skunks warn them not to get closer.
A skunk’s distinctive black and white markings are one sign that other animals should leave it alone, but sometimes other creatures don’t get the message. If an animal continues to approach, the skunk will stomp its feet in warning. If that fails, the skunk will raise its tail and spray with two nipple-like independently rotating squirters that are located near the anus.
Skunks have good aim. They can generally hit a target up to 10 feet away, although some have been known to spray a target from up to 20 feet. A skunk usually only uses a small amount of its spray.
The spray can cause stinging in the eyes, temporary blindness, or nausea, but it doesn’t cause lasting harm. The smell can linger on a human or animal or in the environment. An encounter with a skunk is not an experience that anyone will soon forget.