Few animals have a more odiferous reputation than skunks.
The several members of the skunk family, which are all found in the Americas, are easily identified by the single or double stripe down their backs. And, of course, the smell.
Skunks live in closed-in places like hollow logs and small caves or might move into the abandoned dens left behind by others.
Their squat legs are strong with front claws that are ideal for digging and burrowing. Skunks spend the winter months in underground dens in a state of quasi-hibernation.
Most skunks have black fur with one or two white stripes, but some skunk species have brown, gray, and light tan fur. Baby skunks even have stripes.
Skunks are omnivores and opportunistic hunters. They are most active during twilight hours when they hunt insects, reptiles, fish, and frogs.
Eggs, hatchling birds, honey, fruit, roots, vegetables, and leaves round out their diets.
Now, about that smell. The terrible odor is the skunk’s defense mechanism to keep predators away. Scent glands on either side of the skunk’s anus produce the chemicals that the skunk can spray up to 10 feet by lifting its tail.
Skunks are known for being one of the smelliest animals, but they aren’t alone in their fetor. Here are some other animals that use stink as a weapon or as another means of survival.
1. Brown Marmorated Stink Bug
Scientific Name: Halyomorpha halys
Quick Summary: An invasive insect with a powerful odor like skunks
An invasive insect in North America and other parts of the world, the brown marmorated stink bug is native to Asia. It was brought to the United States unintentionally in the late 1990s and quickly spread throughout North America.
The brown marmorated stink bug has scent glands underneath the thorax of the bug. The glands are located between the first set of legs and the second. The pungent odor the stink bug produced has been described as similar to coriander.
Within the scent glands, the insect produces a foul-smelling chemical that it releases when it feels threatened. Biologists believe the strong smell serves to keep the stink bug from being eaten by its predators, such as reptiles, birds, fish, and mammals.
When people try to capture or move a stink bug in their home, it will likely trigger the release of scent chemicals.
Stink bugs have a unique shield-like shape to their bodies and are roughly two-thirds of an inch long. They are brown in color and can have a marbled or coppery appearance. A thin, light, and dark brown outlines the shield body.
Brown marmorated stick bugs feed by sucking plant juices through their proboscis, which leaves behind dimples on the fruit or foliage.
As an invasive insect, the stink bug has had a detrimental effect on agricultural crops in North America. Stink bugs are not picky eaters so they feed on a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains.
2. Musk Ox
Scientific Name: Ovibos moschatus
Quick Summary: A bovine that attracts female with its strong scent
Musk oxen, native to the Arctic tundra regions of Canada, Siberia, Norway, and Alaska, are a bovine. They are cousins to other bovine members, such as sheep, goats, cattle, buffalo, wildebeest, and bison. Male musk oxen can stand as high as five feet tall at the shoulder and weigh as much as 800 pounds.
Unlike the skunk and the stink bug, the musk ox doesn’t use his overpowering odor to ward off predators. Instead, the strong, pungent scent is released by male musk oxen during mating season to attract females. The scent helps the male musk ox to exert his dominance over lesser males and its herd of females.
Musk oxen have coarse, shaggy fur with layers of shorter hairs. The male and female musk oxen both have horns that extend down on either side of their heads and curl at the end. The horns grow non-stop throughout the lifetime of the animal.
Despite its enormous size and intimidating girth, the musk oxen are not hunters or predators. It is an herbivore. Its favorite foods are grasses, mosses, and woody shrubs.
3. Stink Bird (Hoactzin)
Scientific Name: Opisthocomus hoazin
Quick Summary: A stinky bird of the Amazon
The hoactzin is an unusual bird that makes its home in the swamps and mangroves of the Amazon Forest in South America. It is the only remaining member of its genus.
In fact, researchers still don’t completely understand this strange bird’s taxonomy line.
Hoactzin birds live in large colonies and build their nests on branches of overhanging water. The chicks are born with claws on their wings which they use to climb around the tree branches.
The birds feed their chicks a gooey mixture of food that has been fermented and regurgitated.
It is the hoactzin’s unusual digestive system, where it stores and ferments food, that gives the stink bird its characteristic stink. The bird’s digestive system is similar to ruminant mammals in that it has an oversized crop of remaining food.
The plant and vegetables that the bird eats remain in the crop for a long time while it rots and ferments.
The stink bird, or hoactzin, is unusual to look at, too. Roughly the size of a chicken, the hoactzin’s head is adorned with spiky, crested feathers, it has a blue-skinned face, and deep burgundy eyes.
The bird’s body is various shades of brown, tan, and reddish-brown. It has long, tufted tail feathers.
The hoatzin’s trademark stench serves primarily as a digestive tool. To keep predators away, the colony of stink birds bands together to create a tremendous racket. The birds can make a variety of sounds, from clucks and caws, to grunts and hisses.
4. Striped Polecat
Scientific Name: Ictonyx striatus
Quick Summary: Africa’s version of the skunk
While skunks are found only in the Americas, the equally smelly striped polecat makes its home in Central, Southern, and sub-Saharan Africa where it is called the zorilla. It has earned the nickname ‘the African skunk.’
The striped polecats are generally smaller than their American cousins, averaging about three to five pounds. Like the skunk, though, the striped polecat has stripes running from its face to the tip of its tail.
Although the colorations can vary from place to place, the striped polecats typically have black feet and underbellies and lighter-colored fur on their back, face, and tail.
Striped polecats are carnivores with proportionately small stomachs. They must eat often and are constantly hunting for insects, rodents, reptiles, and birds.
They are solitary hunters that use their claws to dig for their next meal and their razor-sharp teeth to shred their prey.
Small as they are, striped polecats are fierce, aggressive, and territorial. Like the skunk, striped polecats have scent glands near their anus and will spray predators to protect themselves.
The noxious spray not only smells incredibly bad, but it can cause burning eye irritation and temporary blindness if the striped polecat’s enemy takes a direct hit to the face.
Scientific Name: members of the Diplopoda family
Quick Summary: An arthropod with scent glands
Millipedes are not insects or worms but a group of more than 12,000 species of arthropods belonging to the Diplopada family.
Although the name suggests many more legs, most adult millipedes have between 30 and 100 pairs of legs, one pair for each body segment. Throughout its life, a millipede will continuously grow and add more body segments.
Despite all those legs, millipedes don’t move very fast. As herbivores, they don’t need speed to hunt. They also don’t need to outrun potential predators because they rely on other defense mechanisms.
Millipedes have scent glands along the sides of their bodies that produce a pungent liquid containing iodine, quinone, and hydrocyanic acid. The fluid is so foul-smelling that it turns away predators.
In addition, the liquid can cause irritation and even blistering if it contacts human skin.
The stinky substance is not sprayed at the millipede’s enemy, nor can the millipedes sting or bite. When faced with a threat, millipedes also coil their bodies into tight, protective rolls.
Millipedes are usually found in groups and even migrate in large numbers. They seek out moist, damp, dark places with plenty of decaying vegetation, such as beneath rotting logs and under homes.
6. Tasmanian Devil
Scientific Name: Sarcophilus harrisii
Quick Summary: A powerful predator with a pungent odor
A mammal like the skunk, the Tasmanian devil is more reminiscent of a badger or wolverine than a devil. A marsupial like the kangaroo, wombat, and possum, the Tasmanian devil is the largest of all meat-eating marsupials.
Initially found only on the island of Tasmania, this animal has been introduced onto mainland Australia with some success.
Tasmanian devils are not large. Males weigh about 18 pounds and are roughly the size of terrier dogs. Most Tasmanian devils have black fur and a few, less than 20% of the population, have white markings on their chest and rear.
Described as mean, aggressive, and fierce, the Tasmanian devil has a bite that is bigger than its body. In fact, the Tasmanian devil’s bite per body mass is the strongest of all land mammals. It can crush bones and bite through metal.
As feisty as it is, the Tasmanian devil has yet another defense mechanism to ward off predators. Scent glands at the base of the animal’s tail are capable of producing a strong, unpleasant scent.
When it feels threatened, the Tasmanian devil will release this noxious odor to keep its enemies away.
7. King Rat Snake
Scientific Name: Elaphe carniata
Quick Summary: A snake-eating snake with a smell secret weapon
Found in Southeast Asia, the king rat snake is known to locals as the ‘stinking goddess.’ The ‘king’ part of its name references this snake’s habit of eating other snakes, including vipers and cobras.
It is a constrictor like pythons and boas and wraps itself around its prey to squeeze the life out of them.
King rat snakes grow to nearly eight feet in length, making them one of the largest snakes in the region. Farmers rely on the snake to rid their fields of rats and other rodents. The king rat snake is brown or black with a yellowish pattern.
King rat snakes are active hunters and will hunt during the day and at night. They are aggressive and will strike with a quick bite, even though their preferred method of killing is by constriction.
What makes the king rat snake unique is the animal’s highly developed anal glands that, like those of the skunk and striped polecat, produce a strong and terrible odor.
When the snake is handled or when it is facing a predator, it will empty these glands as a defense mechanism.
Scientific Name: Upupa epops
Quick Summary: The stinky national bird of Israel
The colorful hoopoe is quite attractive with black and white striped wings and a golden head topped with a crown of black-tipped feathers.
It is commonly found across Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. In fact, the hoopoe is the national bird of Israel.
Like many other birds, the hoopoes migrate seasonally. They don’t let obstacles, like tall mountain ranges, get in the way of their migration routes.
During the first expedition to climb Mount Everest, hoopoes were observed flying at high altitudes.
Hoopoes live in colonies and consume large quantities of insects. Farmers appreciate having them around to help control destructive pests. Several countries have legislation in place to protect the hoopoes and their habitats.
The popularity of the hoopoes doesn’t seem to be impacted by its unique and foul-smelling defense mechanism. Brooding female hoopoes and newly hatched chicks can produce a fluid that smells a lot like rotting meat from glands.
The secretions are rubbed onto the nests and the birds’ plumage to deter predators.
Hoopoe nestlings are even able to use this scent gland to protect themselves. Chicks can spray the noxious substance at predators. The chicks can also make a hissing sound that mimics a snake.
9. Bombardier Beetle
Scientific Name (family): Carabidae
Quick Summary: Defending itself with hot, smelly chemicals
There are more than 500 species of bombardier beetle in the Carabidae family. They are found on every continent on Earth with the exception of Antarctica. They make their homes in temperate climates, living in both forested and grassy regions.
The most notable characteristic about this class of beetles is their extreme defense mechanism. Not only do they produce a strong-smelling chemical to ward off predators, but that substance is also hot and caustic.
Within the bombardier beetle’s abdomen are two chambers, one housing hydroquinone and the other housing hydrogen peroxide. When faced with a threat, the beetle releases both of these chemicals into a separate holding area where a chemical reaction occurs.
The two chemicals combine together, and the resulting reaction creates high heat and gas. In fact, the liquid almost reaches the boiling point when it is forcibly sprayed from the tip of the beetle’s abdomen. The heat alone is often enough to kill its enemy.
The liquid chemical is not just hot, it is caustic. It can cause fatal reactions, burns, and blistering. The smell is quite strong and is enough to keep its enemies at bay.
Bombardier beetles have great distance and range with their chemical spray. The liquid, which is released with a popping sound, can be directed in several directions. The beetle can maneuver to hit its target with a hot, smelly, caustic dose of chemicals.
10. Tamandua/Lesser Anteater
Scientific Name: Tamandua tetradactyla
An anteater species native to the Caribbean and South America, the tamandua, or lesser anteater, as it is called, is a loner that forages for ants and termites. It is found in dry grasslands and forested areas.
The lesser anteater has powerful claws on its front paws that are ideal for tearing into insect nests.
Despite its name, the lesser anteater is roughly the same size as other anteater species. It has a long, downward-curving snout from which it can extend its long tongue. This feature makes it easy for the anteater to get to its favorite food, ants.
Coat colors of the lesser anteaters vary greatly from location to location. Some animals are black while others have blond fur.
A commonality is that the lesser anteaters have vested markings, meaning the rump to shoulder region is a darker color than the head, legs, and belly.
Like several other odor-producing animals, the lesser anteater has scent glands located near its tail, on either side of its anus.
When threatened, the animal will send a spray of pungent, unpleasant fluid from its scent glands in the direction of the predator. The smell, which is similar to that of a skunk, is enough to turn away its enemies and keep the lesser anteater safe.
11. Turkey Vulture
Scientific Name: Cathartes aura
Quick Summary: The foulest-smelling vomit
The turkey vultures are common sights throughout North and South America.
They are often seen in the sky, flying in circles to signal to other vultures that a decaying carcass is right below them. Turkey vultures are also observed on roads where they land to consume roadkill.
Scavenger feeders, turkey vultures eat mostly carrion, the rotting flesh of an animal that the vulture did not kill. Its short, hooked beak is well suited for tearing apart its food.
Turkey vultures are large birds, with a wingspan that hovers around 70 inches. It has black or dark brown feathers over its entire body, except for the head which is free of feathers. The vulture’s head is typically red.
For a bird that dines almost exclusively on rotting meat, the turkey vulture itself is not particularly stinky. Its main means of defending itself, however, is to vomit a foul-smelling mass of semi-digested rotting meat which is so pungent that it keeps most predators away.
If a persistent predator gets too close, the turkey vulture will spray its vomit in the predator’s face and eyes, which is not only stinky and disgusting, but can also burn and irritate the enemy’s eyes.
Scientific Name: Gulo gulo
Quick Summary: A cousin to the skunk
The ferocious, tenacious wolverine is the largest member of the Mustelidea family, the same family that skunks are in, so it is not surprising that the wolverine can also emit a powerful odor.
Wolverines, which are native to the northern parts of the Northern Hemisphere, are aggressive and fierce. They are proportionately stronger than their size would suggest.
Full-grown wolverines are only about 15 to 18 inches tall and weigh about 30 to 40 pounds. They are low to the ground with muscular legs, sharp claws, and mighty jaws.
They have a molar in the rear of their mouths positioned in such a way that the wolverine can rip flesh more easily.
Like its cousin, the skunk, wolverines have anal scent glands. The noxious chemicals released from these glands are used to mark the animal’s territory and to attract a mate.
Although they are able to, the wolverine does not spray its pungent scent at its enemies as often as skunks, but instead uses the strong odor to deter predators from coming close.
Scientific Name (genus): Folivora
Quick Summary: Smelly due to poor hygiene
Sloths, which include two-toed and three-toed sloths, are slow-moving mammals that are native to Central and South America. As herbivores, sloths spend the majority of their time in trees, hanging upside down and eating flowers, leaves, and fruits.
Sloths have long, shaggy fur that is thick enough to protect them from the elements. It is gray in color to help the animals blend into their surroundings.
The distinguishing characteristic of sloths is their extremely low metabolism, which explains why they move so slowly and sleep for 20 hours a day.
Unlike skunks and millipedes, sloths do not have scent glands that produce odiferous smells. Sloths don’t sweat, so they don’t have a natural body odor either. But they do often smell incredibly bad.
Their foul smell can be attributed to poor hygiene and laziness. Sloths are so sedentary that green algae grow on their thick fur, giving them a greenish appearance and a distinctive musty odor.
The algae, in turn, serves as a food source for other species, such as the sloth moth, that move into the sloth’s fur to be close to the food source and add to the smell.
Sloths can swim, so they have the ability to wash themselves, but they are typically too lazy to do so. They prefer to stay in their trees and sleep.
Scientific Name: Pterois volitans
Quick Summary: An underwater stench
Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific region. They are commonly found in coral reefs but have also been observed in coastal mangroves and salt marshes.
These marine fish are known for their distinctive venomous spines which the lionfish uses to protect itself.
Lionfish are so named because the spikes fanning out from the fish’s body resemble a lion’s mane. They are colorful fish with orange and white stripes.
The lionfish’s spikes are venomous and are used both for protection and hunting.
If that weren’t bad enough, the lionfish will also confuse its prey by vomiting out a mixture of stomach acids and bodily fluids to cloud up the water. This mixture has an unpleasant smell that will also create enough chaos for it to swoop in and kill its prey.
15. Hooker’s Sea Lions (New Zealand Sea Lions)
Scientific Name: Phocarctos hookeri
Quick Summary: Bad fish breath
The hooker’s sea lion, also called the New Zealand sea lion, is the rarest of all sea lion species. It is the only member of its genus. It is found on the coasts of New Zealand’s South and Stewart islands, as well as Auckland and Campbell islands.
One of the most unique characteristics of the Hooker’s sea lions is that the females will move inland with their pups during the breeding season.
They move from the sandy beaches and rocky outcroppings to the inland forests and grasslands, sometimes as far as a mile and a half from the water. They are the only sea lion species to take up residence in forests.
Hooker’s sea lions feed on a variety of fish, seabirds, crustaceans, squid, and marine animals. It will even hunt fur seals.
Hooker’s sea lions are not at the top of the food chain, as they are prey animals for sharks and whales.
Perhaps due to its diet of seafood, the Hooker’s sea lion is known for having the worst breath of any of its relatives. When it opens its mouth, the foul odor pours out.
Although biologists don’t believe the sea lions’ halitosis is a defense mechanism, there has been some speculation that the strong odor might lead sharks to mistake the sea lions for whales.
Scientific Name (genus): members of the Didelphimorphia genus
Quick Summary: Scent gland and strong urine
The only marsupial native to North America, opossums are small- to medium-sized mammals with long hairless prehensile tails and opposable digits on their hind feet. This helps the animal to climb trees.
They don’t generally burrow for themselves, but they will move into an abandoned burrow.
Opossums have several defense mechanisms to help them ward off predators. They famously ‘play dead’ when faced with danger.
They can also increase their salvia and turn it into a frothy foam when they snarl at their enemy. This mimics the foaming-at-the-mouth symptom of diseases in animals so it can be a deterrent.
When it feels threatened, the opossum can release a powerful-smelling greenish fluid from its anal scent glands. Unlike the skunk, the opossums can’t spray this noxious liquid at its foes, but the smell is often all that is needed to turn away a predator.
The fluid from the opossum’s scent glands is mild when compared to the animal’s urine smell. The odor of its urine is strong and horrific, and it also has lingering power.
If an opossum gets into a shed or garage and urinates, it will be a constant reminder of its visit.
Scientific Name (order): members of the Pholidota order
Quick Summary: an armor-clad mammal with a skunk-like scent gland
Although they are mammals, pangolins look a bit like small dragons. Their bodies are covered with scales made of keratin, the same substance that human nails and hair are made from.
Pangolins, which are native to Asia and Africa, are the only mammals with this type of protective body armor.
With their long, narrow snouts, pangolins eat mostly ants and termites. They are nocturnal and have poor eyesight. They use their keen hearing and excellent sense of smell to guide them to their prey.
All eight species of pangolins are critically endangered. They are hunted for their meat and for their scales, which are used in folk remedies and spiritual rituals. They are one of the most trafficked mammals in the world.
Pangolins use their body armor for protection, but they use the disgusting odor from their anal scent glands as a deterrent to keep predators away. They also mark their territory with this stinky secretion.
Scientific Name (family): Crocodylidae
Quick Summary: strong stomach acids make for terrible breath
Crocodiles are large, semi-aquatic reptiles that are found in the tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas.
They can live in both fresh and saltwater and have been observed in rivers, swamps, coastal regions, and marshes. This apex predator has dominated the food chain for millions of years and has remained relatively unchanged.
Crocodiles have a tough, bony hide and an elongated snout with 80 sharp, pointed teeth. Crocs can regrow lost teeth. Depending on the species, crocodiles can grow to be up to 18 feet long.
An ambush hunter, crocodiles will hide beneath the water and wait for their prey to come close. They are not picky eaters and will consume fish, amphibians, birds, mammals, and even other crocodiles.
Of all vertebrate animals, crocodiles have the most acidic stomach juices. This helps the croc digest fur, hooves, horns, and bones, but it is also responsible for the crocodile’s horrendous breath.
While the animal itself does not release a stench as a defense mechanism, its bad breath makes this apex predator even more disgusting.
Scientific Name (family): Canidae
Quick Summary: musky odor from the scent glands
Foxes belong to the same family as wolves, coyotes, and dogs. They are found in many parts of the world, including Europe, North America, Australia, and Asia. Most of them have pointed snouts, perky ears, reddish or gray fur, and a bushy tail.
As omnivores, foxes will hunt birds, reptiles, and small mammals, but will also eat berries and fruits. They are most active at dusk and through the overnight hours.
Foxes have a reputation for being smart and clever. They adapt easily to different environments, even urban and suburban settings. In many areas, foxes are a nuisance animal because they have learned how to raid chicken coops and ravish gardens.
At the base of the foxes’ tails is a gland called the violet gland. It is found in all members of the Canidae family, including dogs, but the substance foxes produce in their violet glands is much more potent than any of its cousins.
The strong, musky odor is used to mark the animal’s territory, but when the fox is startled or threatened, the gland will release a heavy dose of this smell substance.
20. Sea Hare
Scientific Name: Aplysia
The sea hare is a marine gastropod mollusk that is found in coastal waters around the world. They are fairly large and can grow to be as big as 30 inches. The sea hare has a soft, rubbery body and two tentacles atop its head.
Sea hares are hermaphrodites, meaning that both males and females can produce sperm and eggs.
To move around, sea hares use a jet propulsion system. They force water and air out of their bodies to propel them forward. It is not the most effective system, but the sea hare can flutter its body to add to the movement.
Sea hares have the ability to produce a purplish slime or ink when a predator gets too close to them. When threatened, the sea hare will release this substance from its ink glands which clouds up the water and impacts the predator’s olfactory senses.
The ink smells and tastes terrible, and in some species of sea hares, it can even be toxic.
The defense mechanisms of animals like the skunk, lesser anteater, and king rat snake have proven effective in protecting the animals from harm. Although a few animals, like the musk oxen and the stink bird, use its odor-producing characteristics for other purposes, the ability to release a pungent smell at will is a uniquely effective form of protection.
What is most interesting, perhaps, is that this type of defense mechanism is not unique to mammals. In this list, we saw insects, birds, and reptiles that also found ways to weaponize bad smells.
The skunk, striped polecat, and the stink bug might all have reputations for being foul-smelling creatures, but we do have to admire their clever evolutionary adaptations that give them an edge in the circle of life.