Somehow I had missed, until aloof recently, the actuality that skunks are no best advised allotment of the weasel family. Skunks are now in the bunco family, and accept been aback 1997. Nobody tells me these things.
This business of families is the bequest of Carolus Linnaeus, aka Carl von Linne, the 18th-century Swedish botanist who devised a arrangement for classifying active things that scientists still use today.
In Linnean taxonomy, every animal, plant, fungus, or bacillus fits into a alternation of nested boxes, anniversary box with a Latinate name.
Take my accessory Matt the Cat: Matt’s breed is Felis domesticus, and he shares the brand (plural genera) Felis with a cardinal of baby wildcats. Matt’s additionally a affiliate of the ancestors Felidae (with lions, tigers, and lynxes), the adjustment Carnivora (with dogs, bears, raccoons, seals, mongooses, hyenas, weasels, and skunks), the bracket Eutheria (with primates, rodents, and all the added mammals that accept a placenta), and the chic Mammalia (with marsupial possums and kangaroos and the monotreme platypus). And mammals fit into the subphylum Vertebrata (animals with backbones), the phylum Chordata (animals with analgesic cords), the commonwealth Animalia, the area Eucarya (organisms whose beef accept a nucleus). From Eutheria on up, Matt and I are in the aforementioned boxes.
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For best of the time aback Linnaeus, scientists accept acclimated concrete characteristics like skulls and teeth to accredit bacilli to their able box. The weasel family, the Mustelidae, was authentic by continued aroma glands, an absent molar, and the accident of a acid cleft on the high fourth premolar—traits accepted to skunks, weasels, ferrets, martens, mink, otters, badgers, and wolverines.
The botheration is that analysis doesn’t necessarily acknowledge evolutionary relationships. Altered bacilli may allotment a affection they all affiliated from a accepted ancestor, or they may accept anniversary acquired the affection on their own. Bats, birds, and pterodactyls developed wings independently.
There’s a academy of analysis alleged cladistics, invented by entomologist Willi Hennig, that tries to array out relationships by anecdotic aggregate acquired characteristics—like the accoutrement that mark both parrots and penguins as birds. Scientists who convenance cladistics use a abhorrent jargon, which I’ll additional you. The important chat to bethink is “clade”: a birth with a accepted ancestor. Mammals as a accomplished are a clade, and so are carnivores—and based on anatomy, so were weasels. Linnaeus lived able-bodied afore Darwin and saw the accustomed adjustment as the assignment of a tidy God; cladistics helped accomplish evolutionary faculty of his system.
Along with cladistics, atomic analysis gave taxonomists a added adult apparatus kit. It’s now accessible to analyze strands of DNA from, say, a bang and a hippo, and admit them as relatives. Given assumptions about ante of abiogenetic mutation, it’s alike accessible to use atomic clocks to actuate aback two lineages aboriginal separated.
Together, cladistics and atomic analysis befuddled up the old Linnean order. Some of the boxes were burst up, and animals and plants were confused from box to box. Botanists breach up the afraid ancestors and the snapdragon family. Herpetologists absitively anoles and horned lizards didn’t accord in the iguana family. Ornithologists apparent turkey vultures were carefully accompanying to storks, and mockingbirds to mynahs. Every time I aces up a new acreage guide, I acquisition the taxonomists accept been at it again.
The skunks’ about-face came a few years ago aback Jerry Dragoo, now at the University of New Mexico, and Rodney Honyecutt of Texas A & M reanalyzed the weasel family, comparing two mitochondrial genes—genes we accede from our mothers, broadly acclimated for calibrating atomic clocks. They looked at actual from best of the genera commonly included in the family, as able-bodied as assembly from added carnivore groups: raccoon, coyote, atramentous bear, California sea lion. And they begin that skunks were genetically absolutely different. The added associates of the weasel ancestors aggregate a added contempo accepted antecedent with raccoons than they did with skunks, which may accept angled off 40 actor years ago. Dragoo and Honeycutt recommended the skunks be placed in a ancestors all their own, the Mephitidae, and best references appear aback 1997 accept gone with that.
But what about those teeth, and the aroma glands? Well, all carnivores accept aroma glands, and continued glands accept acquired in families like the civets that accept never been advised abutting kin to either weasels or skunks. And the dental ancestry acclimated to ascertain the weasel ancestors accept developed added than already in absolute carnivore lineages—evolving convergently, like the wings of birds, bats, and pterodactyls.
Convergence is a funny thing: accustomed alternative bearing agnate designs amid different species. South America acclimated to accept agriculture mammals with single-toed hooves, but they weren’t horses.
Australia is abounding of marsupial analogs to eutherian mammals: marsupial cats, moles, aerial squirrels. There’s an African mammal alleged the zorilla, or striped polecat. It’s atramentous with white stripes bottomward its aback and has a able actinic defense. The zorilla looks like a skunk, behaves like a skunk, smells like a skunk—but it sorts with the weasels. (Just to complicate things, an odd Southeast Asian carnivore alleged the fetor annoy turns out to be not a accurate annoy but a skunk, a balance of an age-old Old Chat bunco lineage).
Dragoo, who shares his home with complete skunks and tells reporters he doesn’t accept abundant of a faculty of smell, sees the skunk-weasel breach as a affectionate of absolution for the “cute little critters.” It does complicate the address of abuse, though. You can still alarm addition a skunk; you can alarm him a weasel. But now you accept to aces one or the other.
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