Everybody is familiar with the raccoon and its iconic ringed tail and black mask, but how much do you really know about them? They have somewhat unfairly been branded as “trash pandas”, but are in fact highly intelligent animals with many interesting features. Continue reading to learn about these fluffy and sneaky creatures!
At the mention of raccoon it is generally the “common raccoon”, native to North America, that is being referred to, although two other species exist. Us humans have given them many a nickname, including but not limited to: trash panda, bandit, coon and treasure cat.
They constitute the largest member of the procyonidae family with a length of 30-36 inches and a weight of 22 pounds. However, a very well-fed male from a good neighborhood can measure a whole 45 pounds.
Raccoons are widely recognized due to their distinctive characteristics. Its most differentiating features include the “mask” of dark fur around the eyes and their tail with black and white rings. The rest of its shaggy fur coat is typically a grayish color although it differs depending on the geographical location. Raccoons living in the north tend towards blonde and brown colors. Meanwhile, those living in the south tend to be silver.
Their hands and feet are naked, but more importantly they are remarkably dexterous. This is what allows them to rummage through garbage so skilfully/efficiently – amongst many other activities. Usually they will get around using all four of its legs. But if need be, they have absolutely no problem standing on its hind legs in order to investigate something with their highly skilled hands.
Habitat and Distribution
The raccoon’s native range pertains to the southern parts of Canada and stretches all the way to the northern parts of South America. Additionally, they were purposefully introduced to large parts of Europe due to fur-trade, where Germany has the largest racoon population of 1 million racoons.
Resulting from a popular cartoon in the 70’s, Rascal the Racoon, Japan imported a large amount of raccoons to be kept as pets. However, this backfired considerably. Japan currently faces a significant raccoon problem. Other than destroying crops and littering, raccoons cause damage to ancient temples with their sharp claws and abundant feces.
They prefer residing in forested areas since they use trees as an emergency escape route in the case of danger. As crustaceans and amphibians form a large part of their diet, they usually reside near bodies of water, especially swamps and marshlands.
When they need to sleep they retire to hollow trees, rock crevices, riverbeds or burrows, although rarely spending long periods of time in the same place. Being highly adaptable creatures they have also grown accustomed to living in urban areas, frequently inhabiting abandoned houses.
Raccoons are omnivores and opportunistic feeders. They are not picky when it comes to food and their diet is largely determined by their geographical location. Although, in areas where food sources are abundant, individual raccoons have been recorded to develop specific food preferences.
In the wild they consume berries, mice, eggs, fruit and insects – among many other things. Moreover they are very talented swimmers and will catch fish, frogs and crayfish if granted the opportunity. Urban raccoons will mainly feast on what their local garbage can has to offer.
Before eating they are often seen rubbing their hands together, as if they were washing them, which seems contrary to their perceived messy nature. What they are actually doing is covering them in water. They do this to heighten their tactile sensations, allowing them to investigate their food further. This act is known as “dousing”.
Although raccoons don’t hibernate, they do store an excess amount of fat in preparation for winter. Just before winter a raccoon may weigh almost twice as much as they do in spring. Moreover, they are nocturnal animals. Consequently they have an excellent night vision and sense of hearing, and are rarely active during daylight hours.
Mating and Life Cycle
The breeding seasons of raccoons differ greatly depending on the region, but January – March is the general tendency. Normally raccoons are solitary animals and the mating season is the only interaction between them.
During mating season, males roam outside of their home range searching for a female that they can court. In certain cases the male remains with the female until the birth, but he has no role in rearing them. Mothers will typically isolate from other raccoons when their kits are young as male raccoons often display aggressive behavior towards kits that are not their own.
The gestation period lasts just over two months, after which 1-6 kits are born. At birth they are both blind and deaf, only leaving the den after 6-9 weeks. When they are 2 months old they will join their mothers for hunts, but remain homebound for a whole year.
Raccoons living in captivity are capable of reaching 20 years of age, but for those living in the wild this number is substantially smaller. A wild raccoon has a life expectancy of 2-3 years, and sadly only 50% of a litter of kits make it past one year.
Diseases such as distemper and rabies constitute the biggest raccoon-killer, and easily wipes out whole local populations. Harsh winters, and the lack of food that follows, is also a common cause of death. In urban areas however, traffic accidents are responsible for 90% of their deaths.
Fun Facts – That We Bet You Didn’t Know
Because of their reputation as “trash pandas” it is often overlooked that raccoons are actually highly intelligent animals. According to research, a raccoon is able to remember a “solution” to a problem, i.e how to open trash cans, for up to three years. Thanks to their dexterous hands they can readily manage to unscrew jars and even uncork bottles.
Despite being highly intelligent they are not perceptible to learning commands. For this reason, along with their unpredictable and potentially aggressive nature, it is not advisable to keep them as pets – although many do so anyways. The most famous pet-raccoon was probably President Calvin Coolidge’s, who’s name was Rebecca.
Raccoons are a symbol in mythology and feature in many Native American folk tales. Due to the raccoon’s mischievous nature, tales often predicted them as tricksters or con artists. Likewise, some tribes believed them to have strong spiritual connections seeing as their “mask” resembles war paint.
Thank you for reading this article! To uncover more facts about the creatures walking our planet head over to read about the African Wild Dog!