Reading wildlife tracks on PEI has very practical uses. For example, this mild winter has allowed our Striped Skunks to stay active, and I know from their tracks where to keep an eye out when walking my dogs. Here’s how you can, too!
Skunk tracks are distinctive, with several key features that give them away (Photo 1). First, Skunks have five toes with long nails, making their tracks unlike any of our other wildlife. Next, the middle three toes of the Skunk’s front feet are partially fused to give them added strength when digging; as a result, a Skunk track will never show splayed toes. Finally, in addition to the toe and palm pads seen in canine and feline tracks, Skunks have an additional heel pad. It doesn’t always show in the track, but when it does it’s unmistakeable.
Skunk tracks are about the same size as cat tracks and that’s the only animal they are sometimes confused with. When you see the two imprints side by side, the differences become obvious (Photo 2).
In addition to distinctive tracks, Skunks have a distinctive gait (Photo 3). In open areas, Skunks most often travel in a transverse lope (if you’re a horse person, you may also know this as a canter). It’s a three-beat gait in which a front foot lands first (in this case the front left), followed by the front and hind feet on opposite sides landing together, and ending with the final hind foot. This gives the animal a rocking-horse appearance as it moves and leaves this distinctive pattern. If the animal were moving quickly, the hind tracks would be well ahead of the front tracks. In this case, the tracks show the Skunk was ambling along at its normal pace and so wasn’t particularly concerned about anything.
Skunks use a combination of strategies to get through an Island winter. In late summer and fall, they bulk up on fruit, seeds, invertebrates, amphibians, small mammals, and even carrion. Skunks are among the few animals that don’t seem bothered by stinging insects and will dig out wasp nests to get at the adults and juicy larvae inside (Photo 4). All this feasting puts on a nice layer of fat to help them get through the lean months; it’s common for Skunks to lose as much as half their body weight over the winter.
As days get shorter, Skunks start building their winter dens – often multiple dens per Skunk and multiple Skunks per den. During the coldest weather, Skunks enter a state called ‘torpor’. Similar to (but not as extreme as) hibernation, torpor is a temporary slowing of metabolism and lowering of body temperature to conserve energy.
In harsh winters Skunks may stay in their dens, in and out of torpor, for months at a time. In mild winters like this one they are far more active, emerging to search for food and sometimes to move to a different den. As we get later into February and March, they’ll also be on the hunt for a mate. So, it’s a great time to find Skunk tracks and trails!
If you’re interested in learning the basics of reading PEI wildlife tracks and sign, be sure to check out my upcoming talk on February 13 in Charlottetown and hike on February 24 in Hazelgrove. You can find the details on the Courses page here on PEI-untamed!