Raccoons, also affectionately known as trash pandas, are a common sight around most American neighborhoods. There is no arguing that they are adorable, but that doesn’t stop them from getting a bad reputation. In this article, we’re going to be covering all things raccoon and hopefully help to undo any negative misconceptions you may have about them.
About the raccoon
Scientific name: Procyon lotor
Before the species was properly described, early taxonomists thought that the raccoon could have been one of many things, including a type of dog, badger, cat or even a species of small bear. The raccoons we are familiar with in the United States share a genus with two other species, the crab-eating raccoon which is native to parts of central America and is found throughout much of South America.
The second species is the Cozumel raccoon, which is native to Mexico. There are thought to be approximately 22 sub-species of Raccoons, however information on these subspecies is scarce.
Size and appearance
Raccoons have several features that distinguish them from other mammals in North America. They are perhaps most known for their bushy, ringed tail that is gray with thick, black bands that run down the length of it.
Raccoons fur is a light brown color, but in some parts of their range their fur can turn almost a rust color. Their face is white but is decorated with black markings, almost in the shape of a mask that covers their eyes and the bridge of their snout. Raccoons are known for their dexterity and have fingers and toes that almost look similar to very bony human hands.
Raccoons are mid-sized mammals and at their shoulder they are about a foot tall. Stretched out, Raccoons are between 16 and 28 inches from their head to the base of their tail. Their weight varies widely, and they can be anywhere from ten to 60 pounds, but generally they tend to stay between ten and 30 pounds.
Raccoons from the southern United States tend to be smaller than those up north. This is fairly common amongst mammals, with mammals in cooler climates growing larger than those in warmer temperatures.
In Disney movies, Raccoons are depicted as being woodland creatures, but these adaptable critters live nearly anywhere. They can be found in a variety of habitats such as forests, marshes, pastures, and even urban and residential areas.
Outside of urban areas, raccoons try to select areas with mature trees that have hollow trunks or cavities that they can use for nesting dens. In more residential areas, raccoons may make use of chimneys, crawl spaces and attics.
Raccoons have been aptly named trash pandas because they truly will eat almost anything. They are true omnivores and eat other vertebrates (~27% of their diet), plant matter (33%), and invertebrates (~40%). Depending where they are, their diet shifts with the seasons.
In the spring and summer, their diet will be made up of more balanced foods such as worms, insects, and vertebrates. In the late fall and winter, they will incorporate higher calorie foods like fruit and nuts.
Raccoons are also known to be very active nest predators. They will raid the nests of birds and reptiles and in some cases wipe out an entire nest in one feast. In South Florida, Raccoons have been known to ravage through the nests of the federally threatened American Crocodile.
Sadly, in more urban and residential areas, raccoons may accidentally ingest manmade materials or garbage. Raccoons commonly get into dumpsters and garbage cans looking for a meal and may incidentally eat something because it smells or tastes like food.
The total population of raccoons in the United States is unknown but is likely very high (>10 million). The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list lists them as “least concern” with an increasing population. This suggests that raccoon populations are doing just fine in North America and there is little concern of extinction for them.
Range & distribution
Raccoons are widely distributed throughout North America. They occur in every state except Alaska, however they are considered invasive in Hawaii and pose a severe threat to the state’s vulnerable biodiversity. While they can tolerate the cold, Alaska is too cold even for them to survive in the wild.
The raccoon’s distribution also reaches into much of Canada except for the northwest of the country. Outside of North America, Raccoons have also been introduced to mainland Europe and Japan.
Raccoons reproduce sexually as other mammals do. Adult male raccoons have been documented to form small groups as a way to attempt to increase their success during the breeding season. These groups, also known as breeding coalitions are formed by several adult males that fall into a social hierarchy.
The rationale behind these breeding coalitions is that the more subordinate males in the group will benefit by being in close proximity to more dominant males when the time comes for them to start courting females, which could result in them getting to mate with any females not courted by the dominant males. On the other hand, the dominant males benefit from having subordinate males around to help defend any territory.
Raccoons have a long breeding season and may breed any time between January and June. Females have a gestation period of approximately 65 days per year and will produce a litter of two to five young.
Baby raccoons, also referred to as kits, are typically born in mid spring to early summer. When born, they are entirely dependent on their mothers.
They do not open their eyes until about three to four weeks after birth, so during this time, their mom will spend a lot of time carting them around! To keep them safe, mom may pick them up in her mouth and go to stash them in a safe place.
Around eight weeks old, baby raccoons will start to follow their mother out of their den site to start to learn life skills. When following mom around, the kits will follow closely behind in a straight line.
The mother will begin to wean her kits at around ten weeks. These kits will stick with their mom for about a year after they are born.
Raccoons are estimated to live between two and five years in the wild if they can make it past their first birthday. Sadly, many raccoons do not make it to one year. In captivity however, raccoons can live much longer.
The longest living (documented) raccoon in captivity, Merlin, lived to be 14 years old. However, it has been suggested that captive raccoons may live to be 20 years old!
As adults, raccoons have several predators. These predators include bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes, foxes and even alligators in the southeastern United States. As babies, raccoons share these predators but are also vulnerable to birds of prey such as owls and hawks.
Raccoons are very intelligent. Despite this fact, only a few studies have been conducted to truly understand just how smart they really are. In a study done in 1908, raccoons were found to be able to open 11 out of 13 very complex locks in no more than ten attempts.
Not only this, but they were able to open these locks when they were turned upside down or around. This suggests that not only are raccoons smart, but they learn very quickly!
In later studies, scientists discovered that raccoons also had great working memories. The raccoons in these studies were able to remember how to solve tasks and puzzles up to three years after learning them! Their intelligence paired with their incredible dexterity makes them very crafty and capable little creatures.
Sense of touch
Raccoons have an incredible sense of touch or tactile senses. They rely on these senses to learn more about their environment and as mentioned earlier, complete tasks.
Their paws are incredibly sensitive and about two thirds of the part of the brain responsible for interpreting tactile sensations (the cerebral cortex). This is more than has been documented in any other animal.
Dangers they face
Raccoons are especially vulnerable to certain diseases that other animals may not be as prone to. For example, raccoons are common carriers of rabies which is deadly and transmissible to humans and pets.
In addition to rabies, raccoons are also known to be affected by canine distemper virus (CDV) which is the most common cause of natural death for raccoons in the wild. Thankfully, this virus is not transmissible to humans. In addition to rabies and CDV, raccoons are also vulnerable to several different types of bacterial diseases.
Raccoons also face human mitigated threats, such as collisions between raccoons and cars. Sadly, raccoons are commonly found as roadkill. Additionally, raccoons in more residential areas are often killed as they are seen as nuisance animals around homes and neighborhoods.
Interesting facts about raccoons
- Raccoons are incredibly vocal- they make sounds from high pitched shrieks, to growls and grunts and even hiss
- Mother raccoons have been known to share den sites with other mother raccoons and their babies, almost like co-parenting
- Raccoons dip objects in water to better sense what they are touching. The water helps them to get a better read on what is in their hands. This almost looks like they are washing their food.
- Their black “mask” on their face actually helps to reduce glare from the sun.
- Raccoons can get up and go when they need to and can run up to 15 miles per hour in short bursts