Living Sanibel: Everglades Mink
The mink is a member of a larger family of weasels and polecats (Mustela), which contains 16 different species worldwide. Only two of these species are mink: the American mink and the European mink. The Everglades mink is a subspecies of the American mink and is the only mink found in southern Florida; two different subspecies inhabit the northern tier of the state.
The mink population in Southwest Florida today is limited to Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, and the Fakahatchee Strand in Collier County. Historically, this relative of the ferret could be found as far north as Lake Okeechobee, but agricultural development has reduced its range to the very southern tip of the state. Seeing an Everglades mink in the wild is nearly impossible. Quick, solitary, and secretive, this small carnivore is rare to witness even in areas where it is more common, such as Canada and the northern Midwest.
The mink was once trapped and hunted to the point of eradication throughout much of its range, in pursuit of its prized fur, but today almost all mink stoles and coats are fashioned out of farm-raised animals. Although this practice is controversial, as is the wearing of any fur products, mink farming has helped reduce the pressure on wild harvesting and allowed the mink to regain some of its former range. It can now be found throughout the eastern U.S., across all of Canada all the way to Newfoundland, and in Alaska.
The mink is a strict carnivore. Its razor-sharp teeth and incredible speed make it a formidable predator. Semi-aquatic, it feeds primarily in freshwater streams, lakes, and ponds where it catches crayfish, small fish, and frogs. On land it is capable of killing animals much larger than itself and has been known to prey on rabbits, ducks, rice rats, birds, mice, and voles. It in turn is taken by coyotes, great horned owls, and foxes.
Known for its stinking spray, the striped skunk is a relatively uncommon sighting in Florida, even as roadkill. The active ingredient in its spray is a chemical called butyl mercaptan, and can be easily detected by humans and other animals from as far away as a mile. If you happen to get skunk spray on your clothing, the best method for removing the odor is by burying the clothing for a week, then washing it in tomato juice or ammonia, then, as a final step, taking it out to the garbage can and throwing it away. Removing the spray from your person is equally as disconcerting. (Hydrogen peroxide and baking soda can be used to help eliminate the smell.)
The skunk is a known vector of rabies, and any skunk seen during daytime hours should be avoided because it is likely sick. The striped skunk is predominantly crepuscular or nocturnal in foraging habits, coming out at dusk and returning to its den as dawn approaches. It eats just about anything it can find, from carrion to garbage, insects to mice. Because of its odiferous spray, its only consistent predation is by two common owls in Florida, the great horned and the barred owl, neither of which appears to be affected by the skunk’s odor.
In Florida the striped skunk does not go dormant, as it does in the more northern reaches of its range, all the way into Canada. It feeds heavily in the summer and fall to build up enough stored fat to survive the long northern winter. It has one litter a year, producing between four and six young with each litter.
With its scent glands removed, a skunk can actually be kept as a pet, though because of its susceptibility to the rabies virus, it is not generally regarded as a preferred wild pet. It can also deliver a nasty bite, though if reared properly it is not prone to biting its owner. Skunk pelts were once highly desired, marketed creatively as “Alaskan sable.” Today, however, wild skunk trapping is mostly a thing of the past.
This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.