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MEET THE SPOTTED SKUNKS; THEY’VE BEEN KEEPING A SECRET FROM US

Black fur, white stripes, foul smelling liquid — everybody can identify the striped skunk. But did you know these malodorous mammals have smaller cousins marked by black and white blots? They’re the spotted skunks, and they do something the stripeys can’t.

Spotted skunks perform a spread-eagled handstand before they spray you. “I jokingly call them the acrobats of the skunk world,” said Adam Ferguson, a small-carnivore biologist at the Field Museum in Chicago.

Here’s another important fact: There are more than one species, and parsing the difference between them is tricky. For starters, they look similar. Most scientists these days agree that there are four spotted skunk species, although earlier research pointed to as few as two species or as many as 14.

But researchers have a new answer to this question that they published Thursday in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. It’s based on more than 200 DNA samples collected from spotted skunks in places from British Columbia to Costa Rica.

“There are definitely seven species,” said Molly McDonough, a phylogenomicist at Chicago State University and a research associate at the Field Museum and the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History.

The researchers found that most of the spotted skunk species could be divided into two groups, or clades, from the east and from the west. The greatest distinction between the two clades is that they seem to reproduce in entirely different ways.

In the eastern clade, females tend to be pregnant for 50 to 65 days, mating in March or April and giving birth in May or June.

Out west, spotted skunks usually breed in September or October and give birth in April or May for a total gestation time of 180 to 200 days.

And because representatives from both clades have overlapping territories in places such as Texas, you could have two spotted skunks in the same place that appear identical but who apparently cannot breed with each other because their reproductive strategies are incompatible.

— © The New York Times Co.

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