Striped or spotted,

it's still a skunk

The most common member of the mustelid family is the skunk. Most people have seen or at smelled this odoriferous mustelid at one time or another.

There are actually two species of skunks in Maryland. The more common striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis), found throughout North America, is characterized by a black body and a bushy tail with a distinct white stripe down its midsection. Striped skunks grow to the size of a house cat and can become rather portly. Striped skunks are very opportunistic feeders, eating mice, insects, frogs, snakes, plant material, seeds, fruit and carrion. They den in underground burrows, rock piles, buildings or any suitable location. This skunk has become very well-adapted to living with humans.

Credit: - Field Museum
Credit: - Jerry W. Dragoo

A less common skunk is the Eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius). Listed as uncommon in Maryland, it is somewhat common throughout the East. It's smaller, faster and more agile than the striped skunk, having more in common with a weasel than its larger and slower cousin. Spotted skunks are also opportunistic feeders that tend to live in underground burrows near a water source. The spotted skunk can climb trees and feeds on more fish and other aquatic creatures.

Both skunks emit foul-smelling chemicals from their anal glands as a self-defense mechanism; as a result, most predators leave them alone. If threatened, the skunk will stomp its feet, raise its tail and hiss. If the threat continues, the skunk will spray its attacker. The striped skunk raises its tail to do this; the spotted skunk will do a handstand and contort its body in a U-shape so that it is looking at its target while taking dead aim. Doing this helps launch the chemical 20 feet to 30 feet.

Butternut trees

Butternut trees (Juglans cinerea), also known as a white walnut, were once a common component of Eastern forests. Similar to walnut trees, they prefer deep, moist, well-drained soils and don't tolerate much overhead competition from other trees. The trees differ in the color of their bark -- the black walnut has a deep brown color with distinct ridges and furrows, while the bark of the butternut is smoother and lighter in color, almost having a silver sheen.

Credit: - Bruce Marlin

The fruit of the butternut is oblong or egg-shaped, while the black walnut's is mostly round. The wood of the butternut is also lighter in color than the deep chocolate color of its cousin. Black walnuts live longer and grow to a larger size than the butternut.

In 1967, forest scientists in Wisconsin identified a fungal disease attacking butternuts that they named butternut canker. This airborne disease infects butternuts through leaf scars, buds or other wounds. Once infected, the disease moves down to the lower limbs where it forms cankers and finally to the main trunk. The disease causes multiple canker formations, which ultimately leads to the trees death in 10 to 12 years.

Butternut canker disease has had a significant effect, particularly in the south where 80 percent to 90 percent of the trees have died. This appears to be the case in Frederick County, where most of the butternuts have disappeared. Open-grown butternut are more resistant to the disease than those occurring in forest communities. This is most likely the result of increased air flow in the open areas, making it harder for fungi to become established.

Butternuts are still grown for nut production and in nurseries for reforestation purposes. Butternut lumber is prized for its beauty and workability for fine woodworking. The inner bark of butternuts was used as a dye in the 1800s to impart a yellow or light brown color; and it is believed that some Confederate soldiers used this dye for their uniform, giving rise to the term "butternut" to these soldiers.

Article by FCFCDB

Nature Notes for 4/18/2010