PITTSBURG, Kan. — Two graduate students in the biology department at Pittsburg State University are searching for the plains spotted skunk.
The rare mammal is listed as a threatened species in Kansas, and the students have undertaken a research project to determine future conservation needs in the region.
Jenell de la Peña and Daniel Benson, students of PSU Associate Professor Christine Brodsky, are enrolled in the same master’s program and are conducting research on the spotted plains skunk (Spilogale interrupta), a species of conservation concern. in the state of Kansas.
As part of the project, students installed motion-activated cameras in 18 counties across the state using sardine lures as bait. The 18 counties were chosen based on historic critical habitats for the spotted skunk, including those in Cherokee and Crawford counties.
“A lot of people have never heard of the plains spotted skunk, and with it being asked for possible listing (as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1973), we want to help spread awareness,” de la Peña said. .
The cameras capture photos for a month and new baits are placed every two weeks. The research project will last two and a half years and is being funded by a grant from the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
a species in decline
Zack Cordes, an ecologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, said the spotted skunk has been in widespread decline since the 1930s. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, more than 100,000 skunk pelts spotted were sold annually in Kansas, Cordes said.
“Take was prohibited in 1977, and the species was listed as threatened in Kansas in 1987,” he said. “A threatened species is any species of wildlife that seems likely to become an endangered species in the foreseeable future. It has been a priority for us to collect data and the habitats in which they live. The goal of this project is to better understand the distribution of the species and to quantify the characteristics of the local landscape habitat where they are present to learn more about their role.”
Since the project’s launch in January, cameras have already captured photos of other mammals, including the American badger, striped skunk, bobcat and gray fox, which is also a species of conservation concern in the state of Kansas. .
Although the spotted skunk has yet to be seen in this study, Brodsky said they are optimistic the species will be found at some point.
“When talking to landowners, they tell us that they have seen the spotted skunk,” he said. “They may be out there, but they are very rare.”
Brodsky said the multiyear study will also involve college students who will focus on the plains spotted skunk, formerly known as the eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius interrupta).
Through recent genetic analysis, biologists have identified the plains spotted skunk as its own species. It was previously classified as a subspecies of the eastern spotted skunk. Historically, the spotted skunk’s range included the Mississippi River west of Kansas.
“This is the same species that is found in Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma,” Brodsky said. “We have capture records for this species at the beginning of the 20th century, and they were quite abundant. In the 1930s and 1940s, there are records showing they were caught for their fur in the hundreds of thousands. By the 1950s, we were beginning to see a decline.”
Brodsky said experts aren’t entirely sure what’s driving the spotted skunk population decline, but if it’s happening to this species, it’s most likely affecting other animals that require the same habitat. The spotted skunk is known to use many different types of habitat, from open grasslands to mature woodland. “This species has been part of the Kansas ecosystem and its entire range for millennia, and they play an important role,” Brodsky said. “By recognizing their habitat needs and possibly saving their habitats, we’re going to conserve the habitats of many other species that we may not be aware of.”
The goal is to see if the plains spotted skunk can still be found in Kansas after it was last seen in 2020 and to develop conservation efforts based on the research. Kansas lists all spotted skunks as Tier 1 high priority species.
“The plains spotted skunk is a species of concern on the Great Plains and the decline of the species began in the 1950s, and has recently been sought to apply for inclusion on the endangered species list,” he said. Benson. “States like Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and Texas have started projects looking for the species to determine how populations are doing in their respective states.”
There are two species of skunks found in Kansas: the plains spotted skunk and its more common cousin, the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis). Spotted skunks are much smaller and have white spots all over their bodies.
The small nocturnal mammals feed on insects but also on other small mammals, birds, eggs, lizards, snakes and frogs. Adult skunks are about the size of a fox squirrel and can weigh between 1 and 4 pounds. Cordes said they’re also great at climbing trees.
If it detects a threat, the spotted skunk may do a handstand to appear larger as it moves toward the would-be predator. For this defensive behavior, the spotted skunk is described as the little “acrobats” of the skunk species.
However, as endearing as his handstand may seem, this is a warning sign that a bad smell is about to descend. This tactic is used before the skunk sprays a noxious oil that can cause temporary blindness and nausea.
“They stand on their hands to show their black-and-white coloration, which is called warning coloration,” Brodsky said. “They don’t need to camouflage themselves and they’re trying to say, ‘Hey, look at me. Do not mess with me'”.
The students are currently looking for private owners who will allow them to put cameras on a tree or T-post for a few months. The non-invasive method does not prevent any agricultural or hunting practice.
“We started looking for spotted skunks in the southeastern part of Kansas in Crawford County and Cherokee County,” Benson said. “Then in May, we scoured the entire state through our 18 counties looking at Sedgwick, Sumner, Butler, Cowley, the Wichita region, and six respective counties in the west.”
Homeowners interested in participating in the project can contact PSU’s research team at email@example.com.
“Our camera trapping efforts are in the summer months, which we have concluded, and now we are preparing for our winter camera trapping for the months of November through March,” de la Peña said. “We are also asking private owners if they are open to us coming back to catch during our summer season, which will be from May to July next year.”