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Love is In the Air

February 06, 2013

As spring approaches in Texas, the minds of young skunks turn to thoughts of love, which can have deadly consequences for the amorous varmints.

Mephitis mephitisThe beginning of skunk breeding season falls ironically close to Valentine’s Day, but instead of the comic cavortings of Pepé Le Pew, the results are often closer to “My Bloody Valentine.”  As skunks cruise the state’s highways looking for love, the incidents of roadkill dramatically increase, along with the accompanying roadside redolence.

“This is the breeding season, especially for striped skunks,” said Dr. Robert Dowler, Tippett Professor of Biology and Curator of Mammals at Angelo State University.  “Skunks think less clearly, yet cross the state’s highways more often.”

“Biologists, as we drive around, count roadkill,” he added.  “The number of dead skunks on the roads during breeding season is more than twice as many as usual.”

Texas is a home for all five North American skunk species, three of which – striped, spotted and hog-nosed skunks – live in the Concho Valley.  Dowler has taken advantage of that to become an expert on the malodorous mammals.  He is currently collaborating with two co-authors on a book to be titled Skunks of Texas, and much of his research has been funded by grants from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

“The number of dead skunks on the roads during breeding season is more than twice as many as usual.”

Dr. Robert Dowler

As a result, the period around Valentine’s Day becomes almost as important to Dowler as it does for his ardent research subjects.  While the skunks are on the prowl for passion, Dowler gets busy counting the resulting roadkill.  The results of his most recent survey of about 100 miles of state highways and farm-to-market roads south and southwest of San Angelo show that 35 percent of all skunk roadkills over the year occur in February with a ratio of about three males to every female.

“Our radio telemetry data shows that male skunks will set up a home range to maximize their contact with the most females,” Dowler said.  “So the males are definitely not monogamous.  Since they are moving around more during breeding season, they are encountering more roadways and getting hit more often.”

But, just because their odyssey for ardor ends in a fatal finale, it does not mean they cannot still serve a higher purpose.  In addition to counting the roadkill victims, Dowler and student volunteers collect them for use in both the classroom and the research lab.

“You can get all kinds of information from the dead animals rather than letting them rot by the side of the road,” Dowler said.  “We use the skulls for teaching and research purposes and we save some of the tissue to be used in DNA analysis.”

In addition to ongoing projects looking at area skunk population density and differing diets, Dowler has recently branched into researching skunk diseases and parasites.  He also gets skunk heads that have been submitted to the state rabies lab in Austin to use in his research, and sends blood samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for skunk pox research.

“You would think all this was already known,” Dowler said.  “But, because they are skunks, there are gaps in our knowledge of their biology.  They present a special problem because of the smell.”

To skunks, however, it is the aroma of amour that actually puts them in harm’s way, and their search for romance can often be a life or death proposition.