Skunk Tracks and Trails
Some wildlife tracks can be easily identified from afar by the animal’s distinctive gait. I recently spotted this trail (Photo 1) in central PEI, and immediately knew it had been made by a Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis).
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. 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.
This hasn’t been a harsh winter, and so Skunks have been fairly active this year. They’ve been 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!
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, Photo 2), 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.
Skunk tracks themselves are also easy to identify (Photo 3). They are about the same size as cat tracks, but - unlike cats - show imprints from long nails. In a perfect Skunk track, you can see all five toes, but that’s not necessary for identification. The middle three toes of the front foot are partially fused to give added strength when digging. As a result, a Skunk track will never show splayed toes.
Skunk tracks and trails are another part of PEI untamed!