Old West style “wanted posters” used to find new species of spotted skunks that make pear trees

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Most people avoid skunks like the plague, but researchers at the Field Museum in Chicago have discovered three new types of spotted skunks, nearly doubling the number of known species from four to seven.

Unlike their striped cousins, spotted skunks leap into a pear tree before detonating their target with a foul odor.

They also avoid populated areas, so to get the hundreds of specimens needed for a thorough genetic analysis, scientists literally had to hang research posters for locals to hand over the trapped critters and kill them on the road.

“People recognize spotted skunks as something special, because you don’t see them every day,” said Adam Ferguson, small carnivore expert at the Field Museum in Chicago. in a report.

“It’s not the kind of road kill that people just painted.”

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Researchers at the Field Museum in Chicago have classified three new species of spotted skunks, which are known to jump into a pear tree before spraying for potential threats

Skunks are actually distant relatives of dogs and even more distant from cats.

Although they are omnivorous – eating insects, rats, mice, larvae, grapes, fruits, and corn – they are part of the order of carnivorous mammals which includes raccoons, otters, and weasels. .

Spotted skunks, also known as hydrophobic cats and civets, can be found all over North America, but they haven’t taken over cities like the striped variety, so less is known about them.

There is one trait that is quite unmistakable: When threatened, the spotted skunk hops up on its front legs as an added warning before spraying.

The spotted skunk is much smaller than its striped counterpart and stays in remote areas, making classification difficult.  Pictured: An eastern spotted skunk taken in Minnesota prepares to spray

The spotted skunk is much smaller than its striped counterpart and stays in remote areas, making classification difficult. Pictured: An eastern spotted skunk taken in Minnesota prepares to spray

‘I call them acrobats of the skunk world because they are very good climbers [and] they can do a pear tree, ”Ferguson, co-author of a new article on the animal in the journal Molecular phylogenetics and evolution, Recount Popular science.

The gymnastic ability of the spotted skunk can be facilitated by its compact size.

Studies show that urban mammals tend to be beefier their counterparts in the country and spotted skunks typically weigh less than two pounds.

This is compared to the striped variety, which can reach 10 or 12 pounds.

The first spotted skunks were officially recognized in 1758 by the famous Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy.

Biologists at the Field Museum in Chicago displayed Old West-style research posters in Texas, asking residents to submit specimens of spotted skunks they may have found in traps or killed on the road.

Biologists at the Field Museum in Chicago displayed Old West-style research posters in Texas, asking residents to submit specimens of spotted skunks they may have found in traps or killed on the road.

Since then, the number of individual species has climbed to 14 before dropping to four in recent decades – the western, eastern, southern and pygmy spotted skunk.

Species are generally differentiated by size and the pattern of their white markings, which are actually broken stripes rather than true spots.

Because there is poor genetic data on isolated populations, Ferguson theorized that this number was too conservative.

Able to perform genetic analyzes on 200 specimens, the researchers were able to differentiate three new species, including the squirrel-sized Yucatan spotted skunk and the plains spotted skunk.

Able to perform genetic analyzes on 200 specimens, the researchers were able to differentiate three new species, including the squirrel-sized Yucatan spotted skunk and the plains spotted skunk.

“We thought there must be some surprises when it comes to the diversity of skunks spotted,” Ferguson said in a statement, “because the genus as a whole had never been properly analyzed using genetic data “.

But how do you get a robust number of specimens of an animal that no one wants to approach?

Ferguson and his colleagues created Old West-style research posters and distributed them across Texas, hoping to capture the attention of residents who trapped or killed the acrobatic creatures or found them killed on the road. .

Announcing that they were looking for both spotted skunks and pig nosed rooster skunks, the researchers asked for “whole frozen / fresh animals.” [or] animal heads with precise location, date of collection and sex of the animal. ‘

Ferguson, who worked on the project while pursuing his MSc at Angelo State University in Texas, also examined skunks in museum collections.

“If we’re trying to tell the whole story of the evolution of the skunk, we need as many samples as possible,” he said.

“For example, we didn’t have modern fabrics from Central America or Yucatan. We were able to use museum collections to fill these gaps.

In all, they collected 200 DNA samples, ranging from British Columbia to Costa Rica, according to The New York Times.

By analyzing DNA found in tissue samples, Ferguson and his colleagues found that some specimens previously considered to be of the same species were significantly different.

Adam Ferguson (center) with specimens of spotted skunks at the Field Museum

Adam Ferguson (center) with specimens of spotted skunks at the Field Museum

This led them to reclassify some species names that have not been used for centuries.

“I was able to extract DNA from samples from centuries-old museums and it was really exciting to see who these individuals were related to,” says lead author Molly McDonough, professor of biology at State University of Chicago.

“It turns out that one of them was a currently unrecognized endemic to Yucatan.”

The Yucatan dwarf spotted skunk is one of the reintroduced species, along with the plains spotted skunk.

Most species of spotted skunks could be divided into two groups, or clades, the Times reported, three from the eastern United States and three from the west, with the Yucatan species as an outlier.

The revised taxonomy also opens a window to a unique aspect of the reproductive cycle of some spotted skunks: delayed implantation of eggs.

Western species breed in the fall and actual gestation only takes about 33 days, but instead of immediately attaching to the uterus, the egg “stays in suspension for a while” with the offspring arriving in the uterus. spring, Ferguson said.

As a result, you could have two species in the same location that appear the same but cannot reproduce because their breeding strategies are incompatible, the Times reported.

“We want to know why some species have delayed establishment and others not, and understanding how these different species of skunks evolved can help us do that,” Ferguson said.

The report will also help conservationists, he said: The plains spotted skunk has been in decline for 100 years and identifying it as a separate species could help put it on the endangered animal list.

“If a subspecies is in trouble, sometimes there’s less emphasis on protecting it because it’s not as distinct an evolutionary lineage as a species,” Ferguson said.

“We have shown that Plains Spotted Skunks are distinct at the species level, which means that they have evolved independently from other skunks for a long time. Once something has a species name, it’s easier to keep and protect it.

The divergences between species occurred during the Ice Age around 5 million years ago, according to the report, and were fueled by adaptations to climate change.

Further research into their lineage could be helpful in protecting skunks and other animals in the future, Ferguson said.

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