The striped skunk of North America is among the biggest members of its family, but we're still talking about a pretty small wad of black-and-white fur: housecat-sized, at most.

So the sight of one of these portly little guys showing a puma many, many times its size just who's boss looks a bit goofy. Just check out this lucky video nabbed by Greg Shyba among the aspen groves of southern Alberta as he was driving along the edge of the Tsuu T'ina Nation Indian Reserve No. 145 near Calgary:

(A tip of the hat to the Ann & Sandy Cross Conservation Area, where Shyba is CEO, for sharing his YouTube video.)

Pumas do occasionally prey on skunks, and the big cat in this case seems legitimately interested in a meal – at first, anyway. But the skunk pulls out its trademark turning-defence-into-offence routine and sends the puma packing: not once but several times, as it* apparently doesn't appreciate the cat's continuing curiosity.

It's all a remarkable demonstration of the skunk's formidable anti-predator arsenal – and the feisty confidence it lends the animal in confrontations with potential enemies. Obviously, the potent musk the skunk can deploy from its anal glands as far as six metres is the genuine humdinger among its defences: besides its infamous odour, the musk can also cause burning or temporary blindness when sprayed into an attacker's eyes.

Much of the time, though, the skunk doesn't actually have to resort to chemical warfare: its bold, contrasting monochrome pelt advertises the threat of that unholy emission – an example of aposematic coloration – and other animals soon learn to associate the two.

It's not just pelage alone that warns predators of the skunk's weaponry, either. As you can see in the Alberta footage, a striped skunk also presses the point with aggressive behaviour: raising its tail and rushing the puma. Other skunk threat displays include foot-stomping and hissing; in addition, spotted skunks are well known for doing "handstands" as part of the don't-mess-with-me choreography.

A 2013 article in The Canadian Field-Naturalist documented a western spotted skunk's boldness around a full-grown female puma: a motion-sensor video camera installed at the puma's kill of a black-tailed deer showed the skunk driving the cat off multiple times to brazenly scavenge. Given the puma weighed about 99 times as much as the skunk, the researchers reckoned this might be the greatest size disparity on record for a smaller mammal dominating a larger one in a competitive encounter.

And earlier this year, we shared some similar footage taken in 2012 near the Bighorn National Recreation Area on the Wyoming-Montana border: a striped skunk maintaining control over a road-killed deer carcass despite a puma's best efforts of intimidation.

(The Panthera study we reported on last month cataloguing the use of puma kills by scavengers in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem counted striped skunks among the pilferers.)

Every once in a while, a puma – or another opportunistic carnivore such as a bobcat, fisher or American badger – might risk a striped skunk's defences and make a meal of it, but its most important predator is the great horned owl. The owl's lousy sense of smell negates the efficacy of the skunk's musk, and sometimes owl nests (or the birds themselves) come perfumed with the pungent scent of past skunky dinners.


* Editor's note: A previous version of this article mistakenly identified the stripped skunk as a member of the family Mustelidae. The article has been updated for accuracy. 


Top header image: Alan Krakauer/Flickr