Why do skunks smell?

Despite its small size, the skunk can expertly defend itself against predators, such as bears, that are much larger than itself. There are few things that will deter a predator more than an offensive odour, and the skunk, a small mammal native to North America, is probably most notorious for this ability.

Beneath the skunk’s tail are two internal walnut-sized glands that produce a foul-smelling oily spray that can be ejected up to three metres (ten feet). The pungent substance is a thiol, a strong-smelling organic sulphur compound, contact with which can result in a burning or stinging sensation in its victims. While this is not particularly damaging, it is the horrendous stench that is most offputting – it sends out a message to would-be predators that this creature doesn’t taste good, so stay away.

Skunks will only release their spray if they feel really threatened as the glands only hold enough of the pungent concoction for five or six strikes and it can take up to ten days to replenish. The animal gives plenty of warning before letting off a stink bomb, including stamping its feet and thrusting its tail high in the air in preparation. When ready to spray, the skunk lifts its tail and extends a tiny protrusion from each gland from which the noxious scent is emitted. Muscles around the glands enable the spray to be projected quickly and with high precision.