Are Skunks Nocturnal Or Diurnal? Their Sleep Behavior Explained

Written by Janet F. Murray
Published: October 31, 2022
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When it comes to the sleep behavior of skunks, the first question should be if skunks are nocturnal or diurnal. While research suggests that skunks are primarily nocturnal, it isn’t uncommon to find them displaying some diurnal habits. Skunks sometimes venture out of their burrows during daylight hours. They typically do this on overcast days or after a period of heavy sleeping. You may also see the males during the day when looking for a female during mating season. Despite being active at night and during the day, the periods of most activity determine whether skunks are nocturnal or diurnal.

Are Skunks Nocturnal?

Baby Skunk - Two Skunks
Most skunks are nocturnal, with different species that share habitats avoiding each other during their nighttime activities.

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Scientists have done much research over the years, proving that skunks are nocturnal. These black-and-white animals are principally carnivorous and nocturnal. Because of these preferences, skunks hunt for mice, worms, and insects. However, skunks also eat fruit. Besides, these animals are opportunists. Being opportunistic means they live in dens that offer quick, easy access to food sources. This behavior can cause conflicts between the skunks, humans, and their pets when they live close to human dwellings.

Multiple Factors Influence Hunting Times

Studying the habitats of these mammals also supports understanding other behaviors. For instance, male and female skunks forage for food during the darker hours of the night. However, the hunting ranges between genders of the same species will typically vary. Skunks also occupy diverse habitats, such as mountains, deserts, and forests.

When solitary animals share space in the same regions, this may necessitate hunting at different times to avoid conflict. Besides gender and solitude, another factor influences when skunks are active at night. This factor is other skunk species living in the same habitat. All these variables affect when skunks sleep and hunt, despite mainly being nocturnal creatures.

Varying Movements Between Nocturnal Skunk Species

Scientists observed that two skunk species, the striped skunk and the smaller western spotted skunk showed distinct movement patterns. These two species share their habitat in Texas. Scientists observed how the larger striped skunk was active for extended periods and more regularly than the spotted skunk.

In contrast, the smaller western spotted skunk moved around for shorter periods and tended to be more active when the larger striped skunk was resting. By practicing this avoidance behavior, the smaller species could avoid conflict or becoming the prey of the bigger skunk. Despite this difference in their movement patterns, both species are more active during nighttime than during the day.

Sleep Behavior of Skunks

Scientists studied the preference for specific skunk dens between June and December 1979 and again between March and August 1980. These studies showed that skunks favored a variety of shelters and active periods. For example, researchers observed skunks leaving their dens between 18h00 and 23h00, usually returning between 04h00 and 08h00.

While this study mainly focused on skunks’ nocturnal and denning habits, researchers widely believe that skunks sleep during daylight hours. Interestingly, handlers of nocturnal skunks in captivity often train them to sleep at night and be active during the day.

Torpor in Skunks

Torpor is a state of decreased activity and metabolic processes in certain animals, such as skunks. This phenomenon combines hibernation and sleep, as it typically involves a period of extended inactivity. The physiological changes that occur during torpor are similar to those seen during hibernation. The body temperature drops significantly, and overall energy use is greatly reduced.

Unlike hibernating animals, however, animals in torpor remain somewhat alert. They can move if necessary, though they may be semi-conscious or barely responsive.

In wild populations, skunks go into torpor during the coldest months of the year, when temperatures drop significantly and snow blankets the ground. This type of deep sleep allows skunks to conserve energy. Energy conservation makes it easier for them to stay cozy and survive until warmer weather returns.

Sometimes, skunks also share den sites with other species during winter torpor. While this behavior provides extra warmth for individual animals, it is relatively rare as skunks are generally solitary creatures that prefer to be alone. Skunks demonstrate an innate ability to regulate their body temperature regardless of when or why they enter torpor. This ability proves their capacity to adapt to changing environmental conditions simply through their sleep behaviors.

Nocturnal Skunks’ Eyesight

Skunks do not hibernate but enter a state of torpor, which is between deep sleep and wakefulness.

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When it comes to the visual capacity of skunks, do they see well? How about their visual acuity, color vision, depth perception, and ability to see in the dark? The simple answer is that they generally have poor eyesight. However, their vision is better in low-light conditions.

Visual Acuity

Researchers conducted a study on striped skunks to test their visual acuity. Their study involved a series of tests using square wave gratings and two-alternative forced choice tasks. The results of these tests suggest that skunks have relatively poor visual acuity compared to most other mammals. This phenomenon may be due to the nocturnal lifestyle of skunks and reliance on hearing and smell for foraging.

Depth Perception

Skunks are nearsighted animals with weak visual depth perception. Because of this, they can only see within a relatively short distance of 10 feet (three meters) in front of them. This limited depth of vision means that anything farther away is blurry and out of focus, and skunks are essentially blind beyond this point.

Color Vision

Contrary to prevalent belief, skunks do not have a monochromatic vision. This function means they can only see in black and white. Skunks are dichromatic, meaning that they can perceive a limited range of colors, primarily shades of blue and green. They cannot see reds at all. The nocturnal nature of skunks may explain their poor color vision. But, since these little creatures are most active at night or early in the morning, they don’t need to see colors too clearly.

Nocturnal Vision

Skunks have fair night vision. Add this feature to their superior sense of smell and hearing, and they can effectively navigate and search for food in the dark. Their fair night vision is mainly due to the unique structure of their eyes and retinas. This eye structure contains a much higher concentration of rod cells (for seeing size, shape, and brightness) than cone cells (sight in respect of color). Additionally, skunks have a tapetum layer in their retinas that reflects light. Consequently, these adaptations allow skunks to see more precisely and accurately at night than during the day.

Other Senses Regarding Nocturnal Skunk Foraging

Illegal Pets to Own In the United States: Skunks
Nocturnal skunks have poor eyesight, so they rely more on their acute hearing and sense of smell.

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Skunks have an excellent sense of smell. This sense is significant for nocturnal creatures like the skunk. An excellent sense of smell allows them to navigate their environment and detect danger in the dark. The main predator of the skunk is the owl, and these animals need both their hearing and their sense of smell to be sharp to detect any threats in time.

Another critical feature of a successful nighttime foraging animal like the skunk is good hearing. As many people have likely experienced first-hand, loud and sudden night noises indicate a potential threat nearby. Therefore, nocturnal animals must constantly monitor their surroundings using all their senses, including their acute sense of hearing.

Whether scurrying across the forest floor or sniffing food beneath the ground, skunks use their hearing and other senses to stay safe and thrive in the wild. So if you ever encounter a skunk on your nighttime strolls through the woods, remember they may not see you very well. Still, they will undoubtedly be able to hear you coming!

Nocturnal vs. Diurnal: What’s The Difference?

Navigate to Nocturnal vs. Diurnal: What’s The Difference? for further information about the nocturnal and diurnal phenomenon in various living creatures.

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About the Author

I'm a freelance writer with more than eight years of content creation experience. My content writing covers diverse genres, and I have a business degree. I am also the proud author of my memoir, My Sub-Lyme Life. This work details the effects of living with undiagnosed infections like rickettsia (like Lyme). By sharing this story, I wish to give others hope and courage in overcoming their life challenges. In my downtime, I value spending time with friends and family.

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Sources
  1. Britannica, Available here: https://www.britannica.com/science/photoreception
  2. The University of Chicago Press Books, Available here: https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/509211
  3. JSTOR, Available here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40588599