10 Clever Facts About Raccoons
Whether your home is surrounded by trees or skyscrapers, raccoons are likely part of your local wildlife population. They are some of the most adaptable creatures in the Americas, occupying both rural and urban areas in diverse climates. Here are some things you might not know about the little masked bandits.
1. THEY'RE NAMED FOR THEIR UNIQUE HANDS.
Raccoons have some of the most dexterous hands in nature, as anyone who's had a garden, cooler, or garbage can broken into by one of them knows. Native Americans were the first to note their unusual paws. The English word raccoon comes from the Powhatan word aroughcun, which means "animal that scratches with its hands." The Aztecs went in a similar direction when naming the raccoon. They named it mapachitli or "one who takes everything in its hands." Today mapache means "raccoon" in Spanish.
2. THEY COME IN MANY VARIETIES.
There are six raccoon species native to North and South America. The most recognizable is Procyon lotor or the common raccoon that lives in the United States. Other varieties of the animal can be found farther south, often inhabiting tropical islands.
3. THEIR MASKS AREN'T JUST FOR SHOW.
Thanks to the black markings that fall across their eyes, raccoons have been typecast as the conniving thief or trickster figure in stories for centuries. But their famous black masks do more than make them look like adorable outlaws—they also help them see clearly. The black fur works just like the black stickers athletes wear under their eyes: The dark color absorbs incoming light, reducing glare that would otherwise bounce into their eyes and obstruct their vision. At night, when raccoons are most active, less peripheral light makes it easier for them to perceive contrast in the objects of their focus, which is essential for seeing in the dark.
4. ONE LIVED IN THE WHITE HOUSE.
It's unusual for White House pets to start as Thanksgiving dinner, but that was the case with Rebecca, the raccoon that lived with Calvin Coolidge for part of his presidency. At the time, raccoon meat wasn't a terribly uncommon sight on dinner tables in America. But once he met the live critter, Coolidge decided he was more interested in adopting her than having her for supper. Rebecca soon became part of the family, receiving an engraved collar for Christmas, taking part in the annual Easter Egg roll, and frequently accompanying the president on walks around the White House grounds. Having a wild animal in the White House may sound absurd by today's standards, but considering Coolidge's pets at the time also included a bobcat, a goose, a donkey, two lion cubs, an antelope, and a wallaby, Rebecca fit right in.
5. THEY CAN BE FOUND ACROSS THE GLOBE, THANKS TO HUMANS.
The first raccoons were exported to Europe in the 1920s to stock fur farms. By way of an accidental bombing and some bored farmers just wanting to spice up the local wildlife, many raccoons escaped and founded a new population in the wild. Today raccoons in Europe are considered an invasive species.
The animals even ended up in Japan. Their journey there had more wholesome beginnings: In the 1970s, Japanese children were obsessed with the cuddly star of the anime cartoon Rascal the Raccoon. Kids demanded pet raccoons of their own, and at one point Japan was importing roughly 1500 of them a month. Naturally, many of these pets ended up back in the wild when they grew too big for families to take care of them properly. Japan has since prohibited importing and owning raccoons, but the descendants of that initial boom have spread to 42 of the country's 47 prefectures.
6. POPULATIONS HAVE EXPLODED.
Raccoons are among the rare species that have actually benefited from the spread of humans. Populations in North America have skyrocketed in the past several decades, and this is despite the destruction of much of the animals' natural environment. Raccoons are adaptable enough to thrive in rural, urban, and suburban environments. In the forests, raccoons will eat birds, insects, fruits, nuts, and seeds, while in residential areas they'll scavenge for garbage and pet food. Some raccoons do their foraging in human-populated areas then retreat into the woods during the day to sleep. Others make buildings—both abandoned and occupied—their home.
7. CITY RACCOONS MAY BE MORE CLEVER THAN THEIR COUNTRY COUSINS.
Raccoons are regarded by scientists as intelligent creatures, but city dwellers may notice that their local specimens reach special levels of cunning. This may be because urban raccoons are forced to outsmart human-made obstacles on a regular basis. When Suzanne MacDonald, a psychologist and biologist at York University in Toronto, outfitted city raccoons with GPS collars, she learned that they had learned to avoid major intersections. A second experiment supported the theory that raccoons accustomed to life around humans are better equipped to solve unconventional problems. MacDonald planted garbage cans containing food in urban and rural areas. When it came to opening the tricky lid, most city raccoons could figure it out while the country raccoons failed each time.
8. WE ALMOST HAD LAB RACCOONS INSTEAD OF LAB RATS.
In the early 20th century, raccoons were poised to become the go-to model for animal experiments. They were some of the most curious and intelligent animals available, scientists believed, so that meant they were an obvious choice for comparative psychology studies. Though raccoons were the subject of several psychology experiments at the turn of the century, they didn't stick around in labs for long. Unlike rats, they were hard to breed and maintain in large numbers. They also had the pesky tendencies to chew through their cages, pickpocket researchers, and hide out in air vents. Despite one researcher's plan to breed a tamer strain of raccoon, the creature's future in the lab never took off.
9. THEY "SEE" WITH THEIR HANDS.
While most animals use either sight, sound, or smell to hunt, raccoons rely on their sense of touch to locate goodies. Their front paws are incredibly dexterous and contain roughly four times more sensory receptors than their back paws—about the same ratio of human hands to feet. This allows them to differentiate between objects without seeing them, which is crucial when feeding at night. Raccoons can heighten their sense of touch through something called dousing. To humans, this can look like the animals are washing their food, but what they're really doing is wetting their paws to stimulate the nerve endings. Like light to a human's eyes, water on a raccoon's hands gives it more sensory information to work with, allowing it to feel more than it would otherwise.
10. THEY'RE RESOURCEFUL PROBLEM-SOLVERS.
Give raccoons a puzzle and, as long as there's food involved, they'll usually find a way to solve it. They've not only proven this time and time again in yards and campsites but in labs as well. In the early 1900s, ethologist H.B. Davis gave 12 raccoons a series of locks to crack. To access the treats inside the boxes, they had to navigate hooks, bolts, buttons, latches, and levers, with some boxes featuring more than one lock. In the end, the raccoons were able to get past 11 of the 13 mechanisms.
More recently, scientists tasked a group of raccoons with the Aesop's Fable test. The classic story, which tells of a crow dropping stones into a pitcher to get its water level to rise, has been adapted by researchers as a standard for animal intelligence. Raccoons were placed in a room with a cylinder of water with marshmallows floating on the surface and stones scattered around it. To reach the sugary snacks, they first had to make the water higher by depositing the stones. After they were shown what to do, two out of eight raccoons copied the behavior, while a third took an unexpected approach to the problem and toppled the whole thing over.