A skunk doesn't even have to stink to ward off predators. Just their shape and distinct black-and-white coloration does the trick, a new study finds.

Scientists had suspected as much, but UC Davis wildlife researcher Jennifer Hunter proved it out.

Hunter prepared taxidermy mounts of skunks and of gray foxes, an animal about the same size but a distinctly different shape. Some of the stuffed skunks she dyed gray, and some of the foxes she dyed black-and-white. She then placed the animals at 10 sites around California -- in locations where skunks were abundant as well as in areas where they were uncommon -- and monitored them with infrared video cameras.

In locations where wild skunks were not commonly found, predators such as bears, mountain lions, bobcats and coyotes would approach, lick, roll on or attempt to drag away the stuffed skunks as well as the stuffed foxes. But in places where skunks were common, potential predators gave anything skunk-like — either in shape or color — a wide berth. Experience had, apparently, taught them.

"They wouldn't go near them," Hunter said.

The results, announced today, were published online Oct. 21 in the journal Behavioral Ecology.

The study raises the question of whether anything eats skunks. Possibly not, Hunter figures. And that would be a rare example of a creature whose population is controlled mainly by disease, food supply and habitat limitation, rather than by predation.