University of Saskatchewan

September 19, 2014   

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Travis Quirk (Photo by Fred Greenslade)
October 10, 2006

There’s a Reason Not Many People do Skunk Research

>Ninth in a Series

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

By David Hutton and Jeremy Warren

For The StarPhoenix


For the fourth year in a row, University of Saskatchewan biology student Travis Quirk spent his summer with a colony of wild skunks in rural Manitoba.


Because of his research, the PhD candidate has become a veritable expert in how to deal with what skunks are best known for: their aroma.


“There’s a reason not many people do skunk research,” he says. “Most skunks are seen at the end of a barrel of a shotgun or dead on the road.”


A lot of people think that skunks are awful to work with, that they stink and are always spraying people and animals. But, actually, they’re a very good species from a research point of view.


“There are lots of them and if you know how to handle them properly, getting sprayed by a skunk is not that big of a threat. If you just stand still, they probably won’t bother you.”


During his four summers near Minnedosa, Manitoba, Quirk has live-trapped more than 400 wild skunks from a 30-square-mile study area.


After trapping the skunks, he uses a two-metre long pole to inject each animal with a muscle-relaxing drug. Once the animals are immobilized, they’re weighed, measured, fitted with ear tags and radio collars. A microchip, used to locate Quirk’s research subjects, is implanted in each.


From there, he begins work in a captive colony of 50 animals. Collecting hair and blood samples from each skunk, Quirk analyzes the population, monitoring such diverse things as body composition, eating habits, reproductive patterns, and how mother’s invest in their offspring.


Funded by Delta Waterfowl, a non-profit research organization, and Manitoba’s Sustainable Development Innovation Fund and supervised by biology professor Douglas Chivers, Quirk’s research investigates how skunks survive, populate, and forage in the Parklands of Manitoba.


Skunks, apparently, are remarkable survivors so Quirk is studying why they do so well, why there are so many, and, with the aid of fellow researchers, just what effect they’re having on the populations of ducks and other waterfowl.


“Not a lot is known about the skunk population,” he says. “Because of the lack of research we really don’t know how they move and adapt to different landscapes.”


“Skunks are one of the major nest predators of waterfowl and nesting birds so knowing how skunk populations change over the years helps us understand how they use the food resources available to them on the landscape,” he says.


“If there is an increase in skunk population, which you can find out by investigating the health of the wild skunks, how does this affect waterfowl and how can we help?”


Quirk says that people needn’t be as afraid of skunks as we are because dealing with them is pretty straight forward. He’s only been sprayed four or five times.


“When people encounter a skunk they should be slow, steady, with no quick movements or running around,” he says. “You can read their body language and, if they’re calm, they usually won’t spray- it’s a last resort.


“But if you make sudden movements they’ll spray you. They’re skunks - that’s what they do when they feel threatened.”


If a person or a pet does get sprayed, Quirks says that a “magic remedy” consisting of one quart of three percent hydrogen peroxide, a half cup of baking soda, and a tablespoon of liquid dish soap, should tame the smell in no time.


And for Quirk, the risk of being sprayed beats the risks one might encounter researching some of the more dangerous animals.


“Skunks aren’t going to eat you and kill you,” he says. “Sure you can get sprayed but you can still walk away at the end of the day.”




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