How skunks got their stripes

The evolution of bold warning coloration in mammals.

Jun 7, 2011
Megan Scudellari

Striped Skunks (Mephitis mephitis)HTTP://WWW.BIRDPHOTOS.COM

Beware predators: boldly colored mammals are apt to spray stinky gas and are vicious fighters, according to the first systematic examination of the warning colors of mammals, published online May 25th in Evolution. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst studied 188 species of mammalian carnivores and found that species like skunks and honey badgers likely evolved bold coloration—calling attention to themselves rather than hiding through camouflage—to warn predators of the risk of being sprayed with noxious chemicals or getting into a nasty fight. Species with horizontal stripes leading to the tail are more likely to be able to spray anal gland secretions, the study found, directing the predator’s attention to the malodorous weapon of choice, while facial stripes were found in burrowing species that expose only their heads and defend themselves with strong bites. Many boldly colored species live in exposed landscapes where other forms of defense are limited, the researchers found.