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NAU researchers work to solve skunk mystery

PHOENIX — Some students at Northern Arizona University are working on a project that really stinks: trapping skunks, outfitting them with radio collars and setting them free.

NAU Biology Professor Tad Theimer said they’re trying to find out how many skunks are in the Flagstaff area, but they’re also trying to solve a mystery.

One day, a rabid bat bit a skunk. Normally, it would have died, but something else happened.

“But what seemed to happen in this incident 10 years ago, is that the bat variant rabies didn’t kill all of the skunks that it got into,” he said. “It was actually able to be maintained within the skunks.”

It’s called a host shift, where the virus moves from one species to another one where it can actually maintain itself indefinitely through time.

Theimer said they’ve trapped, tagged, collared and released about 40 skunks so far.

“These radio collars not only send us a signal so that we can follow the animal, they also send out a signal so that anytime two collared animals come within a preset distance of each other — in our case about one to two meters — they will record each others identification and the day and time when they came that close together,” said Theimer.

The researchers have to re-trap the skunks in order to get all of the information. The workers have had their rabies shots.

Theimer said he gets sprayed by about one out of every ten skunks. He likens the experience to being hit with pepper spray. He said that he gets so used to the smell that he doesn’t even notice it, until he walks by someone else who lets him know that there’s a problem.

Theimer and his team hope their research will one day lead to a better way to control rabies and keep people and their pets safe.