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Food Provisioning of Kits by a Female Eastern Spotted Skunk
Tyler R. Sprayberry and Andrew J. Edelman

Southeastern Naturalist, Volume 15, Issue 4 (2016): N53–N56

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N53 2016 Southeastern Naturalist Notes Vol. 15, No. 4 T.R. Sprayberry and A.J. Edelman Food Provisioning of Kits by a Female Eastern Spotted Skunk Tyler R. Sprayberry1,* and Andrew J. Edelman1 Abstract - Spilogale putorius (Eastern Spotted Skunk) is an elusive species, and little is known about their natural history in the southeastern US. We used a game camera to observe a female Eastern Spotted Skunk in the southern Appalachians of Alabama carrying 6 different prey items to her den from February to August 2015. Half of the observations occurred while she had 2 dependent kits, suggesting she was provisioning them with food. Identified food items included 3 snakes, a small mammal, a fungal sporocarp, and an anuran. Introduction. Spilogale putorius (L.) (Eastern Spotted Skunk) is a small (~0.5–1.5 kg), nocturnal omnivore that inhabits forested areas with extensive vegetation cover (Kinlaw 1995, Lesmeister et al. 2009). Historically, Eastern Spotted Skunks were widely distributed throughout much of the eastern US (Kinlaw 1995). However, since the 1940s this species has experienced dramatic population declines (Gompper and Hackett 2005). Although, the exact reasons for their range-wide decline are unknown, a variety of possible mechanisms are suspected including habitat loss, disease, pesticide use, and overharvesting (Gompper and Hackett 2005). In response to this population change, several state wildlife agencies have listed the Eastern Spotted Skunk as endangered, threatened, or a species of conservation concern (Gompper and Hackett 2005). Relatively little is known about this rare species’ behavior and diet throughout its range in the southeastern US (Campbell et al. 2010). Herein, we report observations from Alabama of a female Eastern Spotted Skunk carrying food back to her den. Several of these observations occurred while this female was caring for dependent offspring. Methods. We opportunistically collected observations as part of a larger study on habitat use by Eastern Spotted Skunks from December 2014 to February 2016 in the Shoal Creek Ranger District of the Talladega National Forest. Shoal Creek Ranger District is located in the southern Appalachians Mountains at the confluence of the Appalachian Plateau, Valley and Ridge, and Piedmont provinces of northeast Alabama in Cleburne and Calhoun counties. The rugged topography of the region consists of mesic lower slopes adjacent to small streams dominated by hardwoods such as Quercus spp. (oaks), Acer rubrum L. (Red Maple), and Liriodendron tulipifera L. (Tulip Poplar) (Womack and Carter 2011). Xeric upper slopes and ridgetops ranging from 200 to 730 m asl are typically dominated by Pinus taeda L. (Loblolly Pine) and P. virginiana Mill. (Virginia Pine) (Womack and Carter 2011). The dominant shrub species found at the study site were Kalmia latifolia L. (Mountain Laurel), Vaccinium arboreum Marsh. (Sparkleberry), and Hydrangea quercifolia Bartram (Oakleaf Hydrangea). During our study, we opportunistically live-trapped and radiotagged (LPM-2800, Wildlife Materials, Murphysboro, IL) Eastern Spotted Skunks throughout the study area. We used a telemetry receiver (TRX-1000WR, Wildlife Materials, Murphysboro, IL) with a 3-element Yagi antenna to locate den sites by homing on radiotagged skunks. We frequently placed game cameras (M-990i, Moultrie, Birmingham, AL) at dens to monitor the activity and behavior of each skunk. We placed cameras 1–5 m from the den depending on terrain 1Department of Biology, University of West Georgia, Carrollton, GA 30118. *Corresponding author - Manuscript Editor: Michael Conner Notes of the Southeastern Naturalist, Issue 15/4, 2016 2016 Southeastern Naturalist Notes Vol. 15, No. 4 N54 T.R. Sprayberry and A.J. Edelman and location of suitable trees for mounting (Kleuver et al. 2011). We programmed cameras to take a rapid sequence of 3 pictures when triggered, with a 5-sec interval between additional picture sets. Each picture was stamped with the time, date, and air temperature (°C). We recovered the camera images when an individual skunk moved to a new den (Kleuver et al. 2011). We reviewed images and recorded details of observed behaviors. All methods we employed were in accordance with the guidelines of the American Society of Mammalogists (Sikes et al. 2016), Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (Permit #2015044275468680), and the University of West Georgia Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (Protocol #1003). Observations. We captured 10 Eastern Spotted Skunks in 250 trap nights; only 8 skunks (2 females and 6 males) were successfully collared and tracked to den sites. All observations we report here were collected on 1 adult female Eastern Spotted Skunk during February– August 2015 at 3 unique dens. This female was captured on 17 January 2015 and weighed Figure 1. Images of food items brought to 3 dens by a female Eastern Spotted Skunk from February– August 2015 in the Talladega National Forest, AL. Items by date of appearance include: (A) snake on 21 February 2015, (B) small mammal on 23 February 2015, (C) snake on 3 May 2015, (D) snake on 15 August 2015, (E) fungal sporocarp on 17 August 2015, and (F) anuran on 18 August 2015. N55 2016 Southeastern Naturalist Notes Vol. 15, No. 4 T.R. Sprayberry and A.J. Edelman 550 g. We observed 6 different events during which this female skunk took food back to her den. The first 3 observations occurred prior to suspected parturition. The first observation on 21 February 2015 (air temperature = -4 °C) at 03:11, recorded the female taking a snake into her ground den (Fig. 1A). The second observation occurred on 23 February 2015 (air temperature = -2 °C) at 04:34, when she brought a small mammal back to the same den (Fig. 1B). The third observation on 3 May 2015 (air temperature = 9 °C) at 23:52, involved the female taking a snake to a different den located under an up-rooted tree (Fig. 1C). We first observed 2 dependent kits at her den on 9 August 2015. The next 3 events occurred while the adult female was caring for dependent offspring, suggesting she was provisioning them with food. On 15 August 2015 (air temperature = 19 °C) at 21:05, the female skunk carried a snake to a different den located in the ground (Fig. 1D). Two days later on 17 August 2015 at 23:19 (air temperature = 17 °C), we captured images of the female with a fungal sporocarp at this same den (Fig. 1E). The sporocarp was left at the den entrance likely because it was too large to fit into the opening. Approximately 1 min after this observation, the adult female left the den. The 2 kits emerged from the den 3 hr 38 min later that same night. At that time, one of the kits handled and partially ate the sporocarp. The following night, on 18 August 2015 (air temperature = 17 °C) at 01:07, the adult female skunk placed an anuran at the den opening (Fig 1F). Approximately 1 min later, both kits exited the den and moved out of the camera’s field of view. Discussion. To our knowledge, ours is only the second reported observation of food provisioning of dependent offspring by this species. The first recorded observation of food provisioning was in Florida and consisted of an Eastern Spotted Skunk carrying an unidentifiable prey item to a den that had kits inside (Toland 1990). Eastern Spotted Skunks typically mate during March and April with parturition (average litter size = 5.5 offspring) occurring in early June (Crabb 1944, Mead 1968). Kits are weaned at about 54 days of age, but can remain with the mother through autumn (Crabb 1944). Our observations of the female bringing food to the den in August suggest that she was weaning her kits by provisioning them with food. Provisioning of offspring can reduce the mother’s energetic costs because directly feeding prey to young is likely more energy-efficient than converting it into milk. Food provisioning also provides an opportunity for offspring to learn about local food sources and develop prey-handling skills (Holekamp and Smale 1990). Our observations provide additional information on the diet of Eastern Spotted Skunks in this region. The female skunk we monitored collected a wide variety of food items including several snakes, an anuran, a small mammal, and a fungal sporocarp. All of the observed food items were relatively large compared to the skunk’s body size and we assume that smaller items (arthropods, plant material, etc.) were either consumed immediately rather than brought back to the den, or carried back to the den inside of the skunk’s mouth and undetected by our methods. Our observations constitute the first report of snakes and anurans as a part of the Eastern Spotted Skunk’s diet. Previous studies of this species, primarily in the midwestern US, indicated that their diet mainly consists of arthropods in summer and fall and small mammals in winter and spring (Crabb 1941, 1948; McCullough and Fritzell 1984; Selko 1937). This main diet is supplemented by birds, bird eggs, carrion, lizards, salamanders, plant material, and fungi when seasonally available or opportunistically encountered (Crabb 1941, 1948; Howell 1906; McCullough and Fritzell 1984; Selko 1937). Three of the 6 food items from our observations were snakes. The first snake was collected during winter, when the air temperature was -4 °C, suggesting that the snake was torpid; the other 2 snakes were collected at warmer temperatures. Further research is needed to determine whether snakes and other reptiles and amphibians are a major component of the Eastern Spotted Skunk diet in the southeastern US. 2016 Southeastern Naturalist Notes Vol. 15, No. 4 N56 T.R. Sprayberry and A.J. Edelman Our observations provide further insight into the diet and parental behavior of this rare mammal in the southern Appalachians. In Alabama, the Eastern Spotted Skunk is classified as a protected species of high conservation priority, but little is known about its natural history (Mirarchi et al. 2004). The variety of food items collected by the female in this study indicates that Eastern Spotted Skunks in the southern Appalachians are omnivores as observed in other portions of their range (Crabb 1941, 1948; McCullough and Fritzell 1984; Selko 1937). The generalized diet of Eastern Spotted Skunks suggests their range-wide decline is driven by factors other than food availability. Acknowledgments. We thank Jonathan Stober and Nicholas Sharp for their assistance with this project. Funding was provided by the Department of Biology at the University of West Georgia, the Talladega National Forest, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Friends of the Talladega National Forest. Literature Cited Campbell, J.W., M.T. Mengak, S.B. Castleberry, and J.D. Mejia. 2010. Distribution and status of uncommon mammals in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Southeastern Naturalist 9:275–302. Crabb, W.D. 1941. Food habits of the Prairie Spotted Skunk in southeastern Iowa. Journal of Mammalogy 22:349–364. Crabb, W.D. 1944. Growth, development, and seasonal weights of Spotted Skunks. Journal of Mammalogy 25:213–221. Crabb, W.D. 1948. The ecology and management of the Prairie Spotted Skunk in Iowa. Ecological Monographs 18:201–232. Gompper, M.E., and H.M. Hackett. 2005. The long-term, range-wide decline of a once-common carnivore: The Eastern Spotted Skunk (Spilogale putorius). Animal Conservation 8:195–201. Holekamp, K.E., and L. Smale. 1990. Provisioning and food-sharing by lactating Spotted Hyenas, Crocuta crocuta (Mammalia: Hyaenidae). Ethology 86:191–202. Howell, A.H. 1906. Revisions of the skunks of the genus Spilogale. North American Fauna 26:1–55. Kinlaw, A. 1995. Spilogale putorius. Mammalian Species 511:1–7. Kluever, B.M., E.M. Gese, S.J. Dempsey, and R.N. Knight. 2011. A comparison of methods for monitoring Kit Foxes at den sites. Wildlife Society Bulletin 37:439–443. Lesmeister, D.B., M.E. Gompper, and J.J. Millspaugh. 2009. Habitat selection and home-range dynamics of Eastern Spotted Skunks in the Ouachita Mountains, Arkansas, USA. Journal of Wildlife Management 73:18–25. McCullough, C.R., and E.K. Fritzell. 1984. Ecological observations of Eastern Spotted Skunks on the Ozark Plateau. Transactions of the Missouri Academy of Science 18:25–32. Mead, R.A. 1968. Reproduction in eastern forms of the Spotted Skunks (genus Spilogale). Journal of Zoology 156:119–136. Mirarchi, R.E, M.A. Baily, T.M. Haggerty, and T.L. Best. (Eds.). 2004. Alabama Wildlife, Volume 3: Imperiled Amphibians, Reptiles, Birds, and Mammals. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, AL. 225 pp. Selko, L.F. 1937. Food habits of Iowa skunks in the fall of 1936. Journal of Wildlife Management 1:70–76. Sikes, R.S., and the Animal Care and Use Committee of the American Society of Mammalogists. 2016. 2016 guidelines of the American Society of Mammalogists for the use of wild mammals in research and education. Journal of Mammalogy 97:663–688. Toland, B. 1990. Spotted Skunk use of a Gopher Tortoise burrow for breeding. Florida Scientist 54:1–10. Womack, B., and R. Carter. 2011. Landscape-scale forest community classification in the Horseblock Mountain region of the Talladega National Forest, Alabama. Natural Areas Journal 31:500–513.