Posts Tagged ‘zorilla’

Yesterday, this blog got nearly 500 hits from the search term “zorilla.”

I had only mentioned this species on a post in which I revealed the identity of a spotted skunk’s skeleton. I also explained the origin of the term “polecat” for skunks, which comes from a misunderstanding that zorillas and skunks are close relatives. Zorillas are also called “striped polecats,” but as we now know, skunks and stink badgers are in their own family, Mephitidae. Zorillas and other polecats are in the family Mustelidae, which includes otters, mink, true badgers, weasels, wolverines, martens, stoats, fishers, and tayras. Most mustelids do have the anal glands that can produce the strong odor that we associate with skunks, and the zorilla has particularly potent scent glands. But that still does not make them skunks.

The reason why I posted the information above is that a zorilla appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman. Jack Hanna was the guest, and as anyone who has seen him on television knows, he brings out zoo animals and talks about them.

When I did a Google search on zorillas, I found that many people reporting on Jack Hanna’s presentation were calling the zorilla an African skunk. I wondered if Jack Hanna got something wrong, so I looked for the clip. When I found it, it turns out that it was Dave Letterman who calls it a skunk, but Jack Hanna clearly says that it is “like a ferret.” Hanna didn’t get a much of a chance to talk about the animal, because he was too busy putting it in Letterman’s shirt and then saying that it was the smelliest animal in the world. Nice gag, but I think the viewing public misunderstood what a zorilla is.

Here’s the clip:


Zorillas are not skunks at all.

They are a really good example of parallel evolution. Both of these animals share a common ancestor in the order Carnivora, in the suborder Caniformia, and the superfamily Musteloidea. However, both zorillas and skunks developed very strong anal secretions and the black and white “warning” color pattern independently of each other. No other Musteloids have this coloration.

I’ll say it one more time: Zorillas are not not skunks.

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Camera trap codger got this one right.

It is a skunk.

More specifically, it is a striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis). It could have been a hooded skunk, which is a close relative of the striped skunk that is found in the Southwest.

The reason why I queried Shadygrove about the civet is that spotted skunks (and there are three species in the genus Spilogale) are sometimes called “civet cats.”

Skunks aren’t related to civets. Civets are feliform Carnivores that are most closely related to hyenas. The Feliformia include cats, civets, hyenas, mongooses, and the other things that were considered mongooses or civets but have since been put in their own families.

Skunks are Caniformia. These Carnivores include Mustelids (weasels, otters, ferrets, mink, martens, badgers, and the wolverine), bears, raccoons, dogs, seals, sea lions, and the walrus. It also includes the red panda, which is now in its own family called Ailuridae.

Mustelids, Procyonids (raccoons and their relations), and skunks for a superfamily within the suborder Caniformia called Musteloidea. This superfamily may also include the red panda, but it is not exactly clear where that animal belongs.

Skunks were originally classified with the Mustelid family. After all, both Mustelids and skunks produce a secretion from their anal glands that is absolutely noxious. However, skunks have much more developed glands, which they can aim at a potential enemy.

Thanks to an examination of the DNA of these species, we now recognize that skunks are in their own family called Mephitidae.


I’ve been looking into the origin of the term “polecat” for the striped skunk.

It turns out that there are two species of “polecat”  native to Africa. They are not actually polecats, but they are in the Mustelid family.

One of these is called the zorilla.

This is a zorilla:

It looks a lot like a spotted skunk.

These animals are not closely related.

But because they look similar, it doesn’t take a genius to see what happened with their nomenclature.

Darwin referred to the three species of hog-nosed skunks as “zorrillos.”

It was assumed that these animals were related to the African striped “polecats,” and the term polecat became synonymous with the American skunks.

When I first learned what a real polecat was, I was shocked that anyone would call a skunk a polecat. A polecat is a wild European ferret. It’s not like a skunk at all.

I didn’t know about the striped polecats of Africa.


While these striped polecats are not an Old World species of skunk, there are Old World members of Mephitidae .

They are not called skunks.

They are called “stink badgers” (Genus Mydaus).  They both look like skunks with docked tails.

One species lives on Palawan and Busuanga in the Philippines. It is called the Palawan stink badger (Mydaus marchei).

The other is found on the island of Java in Indonesia. It is called the Sunda stink badger (Mydaus javanensis).

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