Friday mystery object #97 answer


Apologies for the lack of response to questions last Friday, I was travelling and had limited access to the internet.

Excuses aside, I was impressed by the overall accuracy of the answers received about what this skull belonged to:

Everyone spotted that it was a carnivore and most of you identified this as being the skull of a mustelid, but no-one seems to have got this identification spot-on (perhaps my stinking clue was a bit too vague). Suggestions ranged a fair bit and uncertainty was rife, as shown in this word cloud of the comments:

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the clue, Skunks were suggested quite a lot as were Civets and Polecats/Ferrets (which are indistinguishable from each other on the basis of the skull, since Ferrets are just domesticated Polecats).

This suggestion of Polecat is pretty much there, although the specimen is not the standard European Polecat Mustela putorius rather it is an African mustelid known as the Striped Polecat or Zorrilla Ictonyx striatus (Perry, 1810).

These solitary mustelids are reputed to be one of the world’s smelliest animals, using a similar chemical cocktail to Skunks, which is produced in their anal glands. Apparently this sulphurous smell is sufficient to hold most mammalian predators at bay and I have seen reports of these animals using their scent to deter Lions from kills whilst scavenging from it. Stinky.

Here’s what they look like in the flesh:

Zorrilla via John Lynch

As you can see they look very much like the New World Skunks (image below), which are not mustelids, but form a sister group to the mustelids and the procyonids (Racoons). It’s interesting to speculate how the mode of defence of Skunks and Zorrillas converged so dramatically between these distant cousins – but with similar pressures from large colour-vision restricted and scent dependent predators it’s probably pretty straightforward to hypothesize. I’d love to see some research testing the question though!

Striped Skunk by Tomfriedel (http://www.birdphotos.com/)

Striped Skunk by Tomfriedel (http://www.birdphotos.com/)

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