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Do skunks smell their own odor? Do they mind?

[Update: This isn't a rhetorical question. I really do wonder about it.]
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Gina Macke's profile photoRick Lamma's profile photoCarmen Kelley's profile photoMarfy Goodspeed's profile photo
26 comments
 
Can you suggest a way to find out?
 
Do they mind other skunks odors?
 
If I have to simply use my imagination without any scientific studies to back it up, I'd say, skunks must feel proud when releasing such a nefarious odor. It is, after all, an effective defense mechanism.
 
I don't know, but they're smelling even when they're not spraying. I think they spray themselves ! And they don't like moth balls, so they smell something.
 
Carl Buell, I suspect they don't use their spray on each other as a matter of practicality, since their spray glands only hold enough liquid for perhaps 6-10 releases. Better to conserve it for (as you suggested) true self-defense. Most skunks will (a) try to escape, (b) make warning gestures, before (c) dosing their assailant. :)
 
+Carl Buell Not a rhetorical question. I really do wonder, and can't find out on my own. I shouldn't scrimp on the verbiage--it's a remnant of Twitter behavior. It's just intersting to think about it: if skunk odor is so awful to other mammals as to keep them away, you'd imagine that either they'd be missing certain receptors in their nose so as not to be sensitive to it, or they'd just be really annoyed from time to time.
 
Everything gets used to any odors after a while. There are about 1000 different olfactory bulb receptors and they all attenuate with tolerance after 5-10 minutes.
 
According t to wiki.answers.com, they can indeed:


Yes. Skunks HATE the smell of skunk oil. They try their best not to get it on themselves. Or on other skunks. If there is a chance the wind could blow the oil their way, they might decide not to spray at all. And believe me, they could tell if they got it on themselves. A skunks strongest sense is smell.

Read more: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Can_Skunks_smell_themselves#ixzz1ZNjtPYz7

Of course, many of their answers stink.
 
Usually people who "smell" don't sense this like others do (layman's opinion)
 
I had fun trying to track down a better source, but no success. The wikipedia article did have a wonderful quote from Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle that I can't resist sharing:

We saw also a couple of Zorrillos, or skunks—odious animals, which are far from uncommon. In general appearance the Zorrillo resembles a polecat, but it is rather larger, and much thicker in proportion. Conscious of its power, it roams by day about the open plain, and fears neither dog nor man. If a dog is urged to the attack, its courage is instantly checked by a few drops of the fetid oil, which brings on violent sickness and running at the nose. Whatever is once polluted by it, is for ever useless. Azara says the smell can be perceived at a league distant; more than once, when entering the harbour of Monte Video, the wind being off shore, we have perceived the odour on board the Beagle. Certain it is, that every animal most willingly makes room for the Zorrillo.


Boy, he could write! I particularly love "Conscious of its power, it roams by day about the open plain, and fears neither dog nor man."
Really lovely rhythm.

Also this History of Skunk Defensive Secretion Research is worth a look: http://chemeducator.org/sbibs/s0004002/spapers/420044ww.pdf
 
I'm thinking along the same lines as +Franc Viktor Nekrep and I'm thinking about smokers in particular. Smokers have impaired olfactory function, which causes them to not notice that everything around them reeks of smoke. Once they've quit, they often recover some of that function, but as long as the smoke's around, they are oblivious.
 
+Carl Zimmer I believe I have read that they CAN smell their discharge, and they DO mind, which is why they do not use it indiscriminately. It is a 'life saving' measure, but babies are more likely to discharge than the adults, who give you LOTS of warning before finally spraying.
 
I happened to be walking along a gravel road at night one time. A car passed, something jumped, and half my body was burning. I guarantee that the taste of skunk musk is far, far worse than the smell.
 
Carl Buell: do you have a source for that?

Skunks lived under my house when I was in 7th grade, and they sprayed regularly (at least once a week) in the spring in what I was told were territorial fights between the male skunks in mating season. Was I misled?
 
I would guess skunks can smell their own odor. It is produced by anal scent glands. If you think about animals that mark their territories, those animals can smell their own odors. I've read that skunks have a moderate to good sense of smell, so I don't see why they wouldn't smell the odor. I don't think it would bother them. They can direct the spray rather accurately so it is probably unlikely that they would be covered in their own spray. The spray of another skunk would probably cause some irritation.
Here's a web site with some information, although I didn't see an answer to your particular question. http://dragoo.org/
 
Unfortunately, my DOG doesn't mind skunk spray! We have had to go out into the black back yard with a flashlight, to rescue a skunk from a BLACK lab determined to kill it in the middle of the night!
 
Anal and other scent glands that produce powerful, smelly compounds are very common in mustelids (weasels and relatives) and skunks. Most of these glands are used for territorial marking, so are used as chemical communication over fairly large distances...it seems highly likely that the skunks can smell their own anal scent glands, but as pointed out above probably wouldn't want a huge dose assaulting their own mucus membranes!
 
Thanks, Jason. Asked and answered.
 
Oh yeah, one other thing...a while back while bored I did a search on whether anyone had done research on the chemical components of skunk spray. Sure enough, this research had been done in the 80's and found several major chemical constituents. It definitely would seem reasonable for a species to evolve loss of receptors for a single compound, but much less likely to lose several receptors that would be important for general smell ability as well.
 
Given the fairly copious literature on the composition of skunk spray it's rather amazing that apparently nobody has tried to tackle this burning question. At least my cursory search didn't turn anything up. I did learn that thiols, the class of compounds to which most of the potent components of skunk spray belong, are actually also utilized as sexual attractants in some mammals. This seems to underscore the point made by Jason that we are looking at a system originally utilized for conspecific communication that has been exapted (weaponized?) for defensive purposes. Also, the same compounds are responsable for the the aroma of some stinky cheeses, and "skunky" beer that has been exposed to light. There is an oft-repeated claim in the literature that 1 in 1,000 humans is not sensitive to skunk aroma, suggesting the evolution of "immunity" might be possible, given strong enough selective pressure. But if the cost was an inability to locate mates that might mediate against it - this is just armchair speculation on my part.
 
Keep in mind that not everyone is put off by skunk odor. I actually know a couple people who don't mind it, so if they don't, I assume the skunk doesn't either.
 
Many interesting comments. Not sure what makes an odor innately aversive, but olfactory bulb has direct projections to amygdala and other limbic areas. Weak skunk odor, to me, is not too bad, almost nice. Seems unlikely that skunks would be missing critical receptors since a) there are so many receptors and b) individual odorants activate a large subset of receptors. Self-adaptation may be the key. But, if skunks hate the smell of other skunks, there must me marked individual differences in skunk odors.

Should probably also consider the vomeronasal organ. This accessory smell system seems especially tuned to non-plastic, hard wired olfactory perceptions. But this is a bad candidate for skunk smell for towo reasons: 1. humans hate skunk smell, and we probably don't have VNOs. and 2. most VNO odorants are non-volatiles.

Back to Carl's original question: what are the types of innately awful (and nice) odors and why? Seems there should be a good evolutionary explanation, backed by neural substrate, for each.
 
I had the misfortune. It was aiming for a car, so I only caught the edge, the left half of my body. Only my arm and face were exposed. 25 years ago, so I don't remember the exact sensation, but that the taste was many more times unpleasant than the smell. I don't recall my eye burning, but it irritated my skin pretty bad, not a sting or burn, but something else. I had to through away my favorite coveralls and my roommate's dog growled at me for three weeks, so there must have been a residual smell that lasted that long.
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