Smart Stuff with Twig Walkingstick: Ranking Skunk Species (for the Week of April 1, 2007)

March 23, 2007

Q. Dear Twig: You said there are several skunk species. How do they smell? The same? Different?

A. It seems they smell about the same. Scientist Bill Wood, who in the past two weeks has given us lots of great stinkin' skunk facts, says, "To me they all have the same odor. I can't tell the difference between species."

The skunk species in North America, you might remember, are the striped, the spotted, the hooded and the hog-nosed.

A chemistry expert, Professor Wood has studied what makes up the sprays of these skunks. He says the smelliest parts are two chemicals: thiols ("THI-awls") and thioacetates ("THI-oh-AS-ih-tayts). The stink, in the end, smells the same to our noses. But each skunk type sprays a wee bit different brew. (More thiols, fewer thioacetates. Lots of one, none of the other. About the same of each. And so on.) Chemists, not beezers, can tell them apart.

Next week: Do skunks spray their spray at each other?

Twig

P.S. "The rankest compound of villainous smell that ever offended nostril" (Mr. Shakespeare).

Notes: Part three in a four-part series on skunk spray that started out as only a one-part series but soon turned into a three-parts-longer four-part series after so much good stuff turned up. Non-skunk topics return in two weeks. (Following part four of the four-part series, which follows, of course, part three of the series, which is, in fact, the part you're reading.) Robust thanks again to Bill Wood, Humboldt State University, Arcata, Calif., for sharing what he knows and smells!

About this column: "Smart Stuff with Twig Walkingstick," a free public service of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences - specifically, of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) and Ohio State University Extension, both part of the College - is a weekly column for children about science, nature, farming and the environment. The reading level typically rates at grades 3.5-4.5. For details, to ask Twig a question, and/or to receive the column free by mail or e-mail, contact Kurt Knebusch, CommTech, OSU/OARDC,1680 Madison Ave., Wooster, OH 44691, knebusch.1@osu.edu, (330) 263-3776. Online at extension.osu.edu/~news/archive.php?series=science.

Author(s): 
Kurt Knebusch