african skunk

African skunk

the web of life in southern Africa

Ictonyx striatus (Striped polecat, Zorilla, Cape polecat, African skunk)

stinkmuishond [Afrikaans]; Zorilla [German]; zorille commun [French]; kicheche [Swahili]; iqaqa [isiNdebele]; iqaqa, inganakazana [isiZulu]; nakedi [Sesotho] [Setswana]; ehidembo [Shona]; licaca [siSwati]; thuri [Tshivenda]; kangamba [Lozi] !Ūrob [Nama, Damara]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates) > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Synapsida (mammal-like reptiles) > Therapsida > Theriodontia > Cynodontia > Mammalia (mammals) > Placentalia (placental mammals) > Laurasiatheria > Ferungulata > Ferae > Carnivora > Family: Mustelidae > Subfamily: Mustelinae


Size: Total length 57-67 cm; shoulder height 10-15 cm; weight range 0.6-1.4 kg

Dental Formula: I C P M = 34

The striped polecat, also known as the zorilla, is a small animal, with long shiny black hair and 4 clear white stripes running along it’s back and sides, from the top of the head to the base of the tail. The body form is long and slender. The bushy tail is white with some black showing through. There is a white patch on the forehead between the eyes and a larger white patch at the base of each ear. The distinctive black and white markings serve to warn all potential predators that they can expect to be squirted with a foul smelling liquid from the anal glands under the tail.


Found throughout southern African subregion but absent from the Namibian coast. Occurs in a wide variety of habitats.


Striped polecats are strictly nocturnal, usually occurring alone but occasionally in pairs or small family groups. They have a wide habitat tolerance, but wherever they occur they are not common. They shelter in rocky outcrops, thick vegetation, tree trunks or use other species burrows although they may dig their own in sand soil. When threatened the polecat will turn its rump towards the aggressor, arch its back and hold the tail erect. If the threat continues in spite of this “threat display” it will squirt a musky secretion from its anal glands.

Like all members of the mustelids, the striped polecat is a fiercely carnivorous terrestrial hunter. They have specially adapted dentition for killing and cutting up prey, with sharp elongated canines and well-developed cutting and shearing teeth. Their principal prey includes small rodents and insects, but they also catch reptiles, birds, spiders, scorpions and amphibians.


In summer ,after a gestation period of 36 days, a litter of 1-3 young is born. Young are hairless with both their eyes and ears closed and the dark stripes are visible in the pink skin. The young striped polecats are weaned at about 8 weeks. They start by hunting and eating insects but within a week are killing rats. Life span: 4 – 5 years


This species is currently not regarded as threatened, and their conservation status is low risk.

African skunk the web of life in southern Africa Ictonyx striatus (Striped polecat, Zorilla, Cape polecat, African skunk) stinkmuishond [Afrikaans]; Zorilla [German]; zorille commun

Striped Polecat

The striped polecat much resembles the North American skunk and shares its pungent defenses.


The Striped Polecat has an uncanny and remarkable resemblance to the well-known skunk found within North America. These animals are striped black, or sometimes a dark shade of brown depending on environmental factors, and white from its head to its long and bushy tail. Their legs and underparts are completely black along with the lower parts of their tiny faces. They are however much smaller than skunks, weighing only 600 grams to 1.3 kilograms on average (1.3 – 2.9 lbs). They aren’t particularly tall either, with their heads resting on shoulders roughly 10 – 15 cm off of the ground.


The Range of the Striped Polecat within Africa is very widespread and constant. From the west coast of Africa they range as far east as Ethiopia and Somalia, and from there southwards they can be continuously found until you reach they shore of South Africa. On the western end and down the middle they can continuously be found from the southern parts of the DRC and Angola, also down to Cape coast of South Africa. The Sahara Desert and Congo Rainforest, along with the southern coasts of West African countries are the only areas in which they cannot be found within Africa.


Their wide distribution over 40 African countries, along with their very healthy populations and difficulty to trap or hunt makes them top candidates for the least concern list. They can be found at up to 4000 meters above sea level, which means they can occur in most areas within their range of distribution. Threats to this species only include hunting when they threaten and pester the poultry livestock populations of rural settlements, but are mostly get out scot-free. Furthermore the only thing known about their population is that it is stable, estimates however are absent in recent studies.


Zorillas, as they are also referred to as, have a wide range of habitats in which they may reside, and aren’t as needy and picky as some other species. All they need in a habitat is a steady food supply, which usually means insects although they are carnivorous and sometimes hunt smaller mammals and livestock. Open grasslands, savanna areas, woodlands, forests, deserts and rocky or semi-mountainous areas are all different habitats tolerated by Striped Polecat, along with a range of different climates. Agricultural areas are even inhabited by quite a number of these small animals, including croplands and plantations such as those found in KwaZulu-Natal.

Social Organization

Striped Polecats are quite solitary animals with exceptions within mating season, and when mothers are charged with their biggest responsibility, raising the offspring that came out of mating season. Males on the other hand are completely solitary all of the time they don’t spend on producing the offspring that would make up the next generation of Polecats. When two males come into contact or interact with one another, this interaction is most frequently very hostile and violent where one of the two walks off with an injury of some kind or another.

Social Behavior

Zorillas are some of the most vocally social small animals found in the Kruger National Park, and their calls have extensively been researched over the year. Their calls range from a quiet growling sound when giving a warning, to a short low-amplitude call used for greeting one another and many more for specific tasks and actions such as releasing, distress of two different kinds, mating, submission and aggression among others. They also scent mark and can convey messages or brandings through the use of these scent glands. Furthermore typical body-language sometimes conveys a message better in a specific situation than a call or a smell, especially when the animal receiving the message is not of the same species.


Reproduction usually takes place shortly before African summer, during the months of December, January and February. This is because most offspring are born during the summer when conditions are favorable and survival for the young is more likely, something every parent strives at. After a female is pregnant with their young, it takes roughly 4 weeks before she gives birth. In that time she prepares a nest for her young. Litter size ranges from 1 to 5 individuals, although a mother can support up to 6 young with her 6 milk producing breast. At birth the young Polecats are very vulnerable and aren’t able to use many of their senses yet.

Anti-Predator Behavior

Domesticated dogs in agricultural areas, or jackals and smaller cat species are the main enemies of the Zorilla. Striped Polecats are much smarter than most animals when it comes to dodging predation and taking a step closer to survival for the day, until the next day. They try to prevent conflict by randomly changing coarse while foraging, rather than waiting until they are seen by potential predators or even attacked to act. This may sometimes seem like they are showing off their fast reflexes, but is a typical thing they every now and again during the day. Don’t let this fool you though, as they can also defend themselves with a special power they share with their continental skunk cousins, a strong odor they spray from behind. This can distract and even fend off many predators in a dire situation.

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The striped polecat is a common but rarely encountered small species of mammal. ]]>