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There's Plenty of Stinkers in the Animal Kingdom

Updated: Jul 1, 2021

When it comes to animals that produce a bad smell, a certain black-and-white critter immediately comes to mind. However, skunks aren't the only stinkers in the animal kingdom.

Skunks aren't the only stinker in the animal kingdom. (Photo via Shutterstock)

In fact, some entire families of animals can produce bad-smelling secretions. Take the mustelid family of mammals, which includes minks, weasels, otters and badgers. All mustelids have scent glands that can emit secretions with a foul odor.

Different mustelid animals use their secretions for different purposes. Some use them to mark their territory, while others use them as skunks do — as a defense to protect them from predators.

Some animals are even named for their odor-producing ability. Muskrats got their common name because of the musky smell they produce during mating season to mark their territories. Similarly, musk oxen are named for the musky odor that males produce to attract females during mating season.


Words to know

Incapacitated: Incapable of functioning normally

Noxious: unpleasant or harmful


You might know that opossums sometimes play dead to keep predators away. But their playing-dead routine has a stinky component too. While playing dead, opossums also defecate a smelly green mucous to convince predators they are dead.

Bombardier beetles probably come closest to skunks in matching their method of defense. The beetles, of which there are more than 500 species in the world, may even one-up skunks. They can spray a bad-smelling, burning-hot liquid at potential predators. The liquid is so dangerous that the components are stored separately in the beetles’ bodies until they spray it so the beetles themselves aren't harmed by it. When sprayed, predators of the beetles are painfully incapacitated, but it is only temporary.

The appropriately named stink bug is another insect that uses smell as a means of defense. They unleash an unpleasant-smelling odor when they are disturbed or stepped on. A lesser-known stinking insect is the millipede, which, like a stink bug, will release a bad-smelling secretion if disturbed or stepped on. These creatures, which sometimes make their way into homes, don't bite or harm humans in any way, but you may notice an unpleasant odor on your hands if you handle one.

A few bird species deploy a similar defense mechanism like skunks, but with a twist. Vultures, including turkey vultures, will vomit when they feel threatened. And because vultures primarily eat dead animals, the smell of their vomit usually has the intended effect of keeping predators away.

Vultures, though, have nothing on the hoatzin, a South American bird that smells like cow manure. Hoatzins, which are called stink birds, eat mostly leaves, and they are the only bird known to digest by fermentation, just like cows do. This fermentation process is what causes the unwelcome smell.

Still, though, even with so many stinky animals around, it's the skunk that takes top prize. Their famous means of defense is effective both because of the odor, which is the result of an active ingredient called n-butyl mercaptan, and because of how they deploy it. Skunks can send their noxious spray up to 15 feet, and they have enough of the substance that they can discharge it up to five times consecutively.

Skunks move slowly, which is why their defense mechanism is so important. If you encounter a skunk, you should stand still or back away from it slowly. Skunks give off a warning before they spray by arching their backs, raising their tails, stamping their feet and turning their backs toward the threat to prepare to spray if needed.


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