Raccoon (Procyon lotor)

Currently I’m on a road trip to Newfoundland, and in celebration of the hopefully diverse wildlife I plan to see, for the next two weeks I’ve decided to blog only about animals I see along the way. Unfortunately, the first leg of the trip was from Guelph to Montreal, and there wasn’t a whole lot of crazy wildlife by the road. I did, however, see a dead raccoon on the road, so sad as that was I have decided to blog about raccoons today.

Raccoons are Carnivores (the taxonomic order, not the dietary classification), and belong to the family Procyonidae. Despite being members of Carnivora, raccoons are highly omnivorous, and will eat just about anything (think of raccoons sifting through your garbage for any tasty morsels they can find). Raccoons are the largest procyonid, and usually weigh between 3.5 to 9 kilograms, though the heaviest animal ever recorded weighed in at a staggering 28.4 kilograms.

Two raccoons hanging out in a tree. They are adept climbers, and can descend a tree headfirst by rotating their hind paws backwards.

Two raccoons hanging out in a tree. They are adept climbers, and can descend a tree headfirst by rotating their hind paws backwards.

One well-known trait of raccoons is their tendency to wash their food before eating. At least, they do this in captivity. In the wild, the story is different. When raccoons forage or hunt for food in water, they will grab their food and pull it out of the water, rubbing it with their paws, apparently not to clean it, but to remove inedible or unwanted parts.

Raccoons have an extremely good sense of touch, especially on their front paws. In order to prevent a sensory overload while walking, a hard layer covers the paws. This softens when wet, allowing the raccoon to fully use its highly developed sense of touch. This may be why raccoons dunk their food in water, to heighten their feeling ability which better allows them to identify their food. In the wild, however, this behaviour only occurs when the raccoon is hunting in water, and a wild raccoon will almost never seek out a stream in which to wash its food.

Raccoons are considered to be very intelligent – they can remember the solution to problems for three years. There is one theory that animals that flourish in urban environments are more intelligent than those who live in rural areas (just think of crows). But I’m not sure if any wide-scale studies have been done on this, although it might be a cool thing to look into.

A raccoon's face, showing off it's black mask. The reflection in its eyes is from the tapetum lucidum, a membrane that reflects light, allowing for better night vision.

A raccoon’s face, showing off it’s black mask. The reflection in its eyes is from the tapetum lucidum, a membrane that reflects light, allowing for better night vision.

One of the raccoon’s most distinguishing features is its black mask – the thing that makes it look like a bandit about to brandish a rapier at you. This may help raccoons quickly identify the expressions of their friends, as they are nocturnal so the high contrast between the mask and the rest of the body would stand out in the dark. Another possible reason for the mask is to lessen glare (like football and baseball players sporting black streaks on their cheeks), which would be extremely helpful in our bright cities.

Raccoons are fairly commonplace in all North American cities – I’ve seen many in my 22 years living in Vancouver and then Guelph. Still, I never knew all that much about them, so I’m glad I looked them up. Now it’s off to Fredericton, so hopefully I see something awesome (and alive!) there.

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