Dan Brooks, Ph.D.
Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, HMNS
When I first arrived at the museum in 1999, I ‘inherited’ the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife, and the Frensley Hall of African Wildlife. Well the latter was fully updated a few years ago with generous support from Robert and Annie Graham. But the Farish Hall is another story – it will wait a few years to receive a full makeover, as part of the HMNS’s exciting expansion.
Anyway, back to the new halls I ‘inherited’, as I made the initial rounds as a young Curator 11 years ago, I realized there were some truly rare (e.g., Black Bear), endangered (e.g., Attwater’s Prairie Chicken), and sadly in some cases extinct (e.g., Red Wolf) species in Farish Hall. Despite this fact, some rather common Texas mammals were missing – most noticeable were the Virginia Opossum and the Striped Skunk.
So I bided my time, wondering how long it would take until the Docents noticed this overlooked fact and began to bug me to do something about it. Well, for those of you keeping score, it took about six or seven years. But alas, as of 23 November 2009, I’m thrilled to report that we now have representation of both the Virginia Opossum and the Striped Skunk in the Piney Woods and Carnivore dioramas, respectively. Following are some natural history notes.
Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis)
This is the most common species of skunk in our region. Few people realize that there are at least 10 species of skunks distributed throughout the New World. In North America, there are a couple of species each of the striped (Mephitis) group and spotted (Spilogale) group, with the hog-nosed skunk (Conepatus) dispersing southward, where it radiates into several species in South America.
Skunks are members of the Carnivoran Family, Mustelidae. This includes otters, badgers, weasels and other similar forms. Like many medium-sized Carnivorans, the skunk has a strong musk gland. So strong in fact, that the skunk has a well-known reputation for its scent gland, which produces a musky odor. This odor is not uncommon when skunks are involved in roadway mortalities. They can also voluntarily shoot the scent directly at whatever varmint (including a person) is bothering them. Just like rattlesnakes sounding off their warning before striking, a skunk will stamp its feet and flag it’s tail before spraying.
Skunks are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of food, including cannibalized carrion – it’s not unusual to find more than one road mortality at a give site, since live skunks will forage upon road killed skunks, then becoming a victim of vehicle mortality themselves.
Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana)
Of the more than 300 species of Marsupials extant today, 230 are found Australia and surrounding islands, and 85 are endemic to the New World. Of these, only one occurs in the United States and Canada – the Virginia Opossum, or simply ‘Possum’ as it’s known in this region.
Like all marsupials, the young are not as fully developed as other mammals when born. They claw their way to the mother’s pouch, where they develop for a couple of months. As the young get older they will ride on the mother’s back, and there can be several young per litter.
To ward off predators, they can open their mouth very wide and display their vast array of teeth – 50 teeth in all! They may hiss and make noise as well, but the famous saying ‘playing possum’ comes from this marsupial’s ability to feign death by going limp. Possums are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of food, and it’s not unusual to find them rummaging through a garbage can. Their sense of smell is well developed to compensate their poor eyesight. Although their tail is prehensile, it’s not strong enough to support their weight, such as a New World monkey’s prehensile tail for example. They do use the tail for balance however.
Range across seven biomes to explore the entire continent of Africa in the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.