In Helium Heels, the ghost babies – Tommy, Willy, Brando, Elliot, and Little Becky – thought it was a good idea to play a trick on a skunk. And that’s the last time they’ll ever do it.
Right after they shout “BOO!” the frightened skunk sprays them with a terrible smelling oily liquid, which quickly stinks up the entire barn. The ghost babies have no choice but to bathe in tomato juice and spend the night in the donkey stall. They smelled so terrible that Little Black Hen didn’t want them coming near her nest.
What about this terrible smelling liquid the skunk sprayed on the ghost babies? What makes it smell so horrible? How long does the odor last?
The scientific name tells it all
Striped skunks are the most common skunk species and they are found all over the United States, northern Mexico, and southern Canada. Its scientific name is Mephitis mephitis, which means something like a foul stench or noxious vapor. That sums up the most defining character of skunks: their defensive spray.
Why skunks spray
Skunks are not aggressive animals. Although they possess sharp claws and pointy teeth, they prefer not to fight when confronted with danger. Instead, they try to look tough by hissing, stomping their feet, and raising their tail to warn an intruder to stay away. Spotted skunks will even do a handstand.
When an agitated skunk feels it has run out of options it makes the ultimate decision to release its full fury on a predator or intruder. To strike, the skunk will turn its back toward its victim, assume a horseshoe shape, raise its tail, and spray the terrible liquid.
Skunks don’t want to spray unless they have to. It can take them up to a week to restore their spray supply. This is why they give warning signals beforehand.
The chemical makeup of a skunk’s spray
The chemical makeup of the spray varies with the species, but all sprays contain compounds called thiols, also known as mercaptans. They contain sulfur and hydrogen atoms bonded together, and typically smell really strong. Thiols are also found in many other stinky objects, such as garlic, onions, feces, and rotting flesh.
There are three different thiols in a striped skunk’s spray, two of which are dreadfully malodorous. Additional compounds in the spray are called thioacetates. They don’t have a strong scent, but become thiols when exposed to water. That might explain why the ghost babies still smelled terrible after Little Black Hen bathed them in tomato juice and rinsed them with water.
How skunks spray
Skunk spray is produced by anal scent glands, which many mammals also have. When a skunk sprays it extrudes a pair of nipple-like protrusions called papillae out of the anus and squirts the liquid at its target. Skunk spray can cause temporary blindness when sprayed directly in the face, but leaves no permanent eye damage.
A skunk can accurately spray at a distance up to 15 feet with uncanny good aim. The odor can linger for days or even months, depending on the amount released.