Ken Baker, Ph.D.
With the possible exception of a certain overly aggressive red squirrel that tried to bite off a couple of my fingers at the elbow, the meanest animal I worked with was a small but surprisingly strong female raccoon.
Well, maybe mean really isn’t the right word. I too would probably express my annoyance if some lout caught me, covered my body with a burlap sack with only my head sticking out, and put a leather collar with a radio transmitter around my neck. So, seriously upset, then.
On the other hand, the most outrageously adorable creature was a month-old raccoon cub.
And that captures the enigma of this intriguing, comical, and frequently troublesome mammal. A star of countless funny animal videos on YouTube and, all too often, the beloved family pet rescued by children as an orphaned baby… who turns vicious as an adult, trashing the living room before leaving. of the house through a window. screen.
Captain John Smith, leader of the Virginia colony at Jamestown in 1609, named the species “aroughcun” in his journals after the Powhatan term for “hand-scratching animal”. It’s an apt name since the raccoon’s hypersensitive front legs are the source of its most important sense, more crucial to its daily survival than its keen sense of hearing and smell (or somewhat less acute vision).
Raccoons are known for handling and washing their food.
Nearly two-thirds of a raccoon’s brain’s sensory perception area is devoted to tactile input, primarily from its front paws, more than has been observed in any other animal. Virtually all food is handled and inspected before consumption.
Which brings up the issue of spraying and the scientific name of the species, procyon lotor.
You can find many websites that refer to spraying (washing) the raccoon’s food before consuming it. In fact, the name of its species, lotor, comes from the Latin for “washer”. Even so, behavioral biologists have largely debunked this still-widespread belief for more than 40 years.
Raccoons are omnivores, opportunists that feed on a wide variety of plant and animal foods. Adept climbers, they are one of the most important predators of bird eggs and chicks. However, they rarely take much larger prey, preferring prey that are easier to catch and defeat, such as insects, amphibians, and, one of their main favorites, crayfish.
They forage for crayfish and other aquatic invertebrates (as well as fish if they can catch one) by moving their front legs in the shallows at the edge of a stream. Raccoons are primarily nocturnal, but their sense of touch is so acute that they do not rely much on vision when engaged in play and remain effective predators even on dark, moonless nights.
Although captive raccoons have been observed carrying food to a nearby stream, the behavior is now thought to be triggered by an innate urge to play rather than a desire to clean up food. This is supported by observations that captive animals submerge aquatic prey more often than terrestrial prey, and that wild raccoons have never been seen taking prey to a stream to wash it away.
procyon lotorThe original habitat was the deciduous and mixed forests of eastern North America. However, raccoons have proven highly adaptable to changes in their environment, and are now found from southern Canada, throughout most of the US and Central America, and into northern parts of North America. South, where there are enough trees to serve as roosts and nesting sites.
Show in Japan resulted in the importation of 1,500 scoundrels in the 1970s
They have become well acclimatized to agriculture, marshes, small towns, and even large urban areas, with sizeable populations now residing in New York City, Washington DC, and Chicago. They have also been released, sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose, in much of Europe and Asia, where they have commonly become a problem for native species.
In the late 1970s, for example, 1,500 raccoons were imported into Japan as a result of the popularity of an anime series titled Rascal the Raccoon. They are now found in all 47 prefectures of the country, where they annually cause many thousands of dollars in damage and have a negative impact on wildlife.
It is true that raccoons can transmit rabies. In fact, of 6,940 documented cases of rabies found in animals in the US in 2006, nearly 38% had been seen in raccoons. However, it should be noted that only one human death due to rabies from a raccoon has been reported here (in 2003).
The viral disease, distemper (which is not transferable to humans), is a much bigger problem for raccoons. While hunting, trapping, and vehicle collisions are the most common sources of raccoon mortality, distemper is the most common natural cause of death.
Although raccoons have been reported to live up to 16 years in the wild, most do not survive past their second year. If one somehow manages to get this far, one can expect an average lifespan of about five years.
Ken Baker is a retired professor of biology and environmental studies. If he has a natural history topic you’d like Dr. Baker to consider for an upcoming column, email your idea to firstname.lastname@example.org.