OTTAWA — Attitude matters more than size when a tiny skunk and a big, tough cougar both want the same lunch.
A study in the Canadian Field-Naturalist, a science journal, uses video to tell what happened when a 50-kilogram cougar being studied by scientists met a half-kilogram western spotted skunk. (This is a smaller animal than the striped skunks in Eastern Canada. Native to British Columbia and western U.S. states, it still has a spray similar to its Eastern cousins.)
The big cat was eating a deer carcass when the skunk arrived. Twice the video shows the skunk staring down the cougar and at least once chasing it aggressively away from the meal.
The skunk then eats undisturbed.
The video is shot at night, under lights, by a camera left beside the deer in hope that the cat would show up. Several hours are edited down to eight minutes.
The cougar wears a radio collar. It’s clearly visible as it eats, but the skunk is harder to see at first in the shadows at the lower right of the picture.
The skunk becomes more visible between in the third minute of the video. It wanders away briefly and allows the cougar to return to the meat.
But the skunk comes back for a second helping and bounds clearly into the well-lit area of the scene about four minutes and 15 seconds into the video, chasing away the big cat. It never sprays the cougar, but clearly doesn’t have to.
“During these encounters, the Western Spotted Skunk appeared to initially rely upon tail-lifting in order to threaten to spray the Cougar, while also appearing to communicate its aggressiveness to the Cougar through body language. After the initial encounter, the Western Spotted Skunk appeared to rely less on threats of spraying and instead just used aggressive body language in its direct encounters with the Cougar,” writes study author Maximilian Allen of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.
He did the study in California’s Mendocino National Forest.
In the world of mammals, the big animal usually takes meals away from smaller ones, Allen notes.
He calculates the weight ratio here is 99 to one in the cougar’s favour.
“We believe that this is the largest reported size differential for the smaller mammalian species winning such an encounter against a larger species.”