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Episode 245: Rambunctious Raccoons

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Raccoons are charismatic critters that hail from North America, where they are famous for rifling through rubbish for a tasty morsel, or cheekily stealing food from pets with their little grabby hands. These dexterous paws and infamous “bandit mask” facial markings, make the raccoon one of the most well-known mammals on the planet. 

Raccoon: what’s in a name?

The English name Raccoon is thought to be derived from the Algonquian ‘Arocoun’, which comes from the verb ‘arakhurem’, meaning ‘he scratches with hands.’ Its likely native Americans chose this name after seeing the way raccoons use their dexterous paws to scrabble for their food [1]. The Powhatan tribe, a group of indigenous tribes that lived in Virginia, had another word that likely influenced the English word used today: ‘Aroughcun’ or ‘Aroughcoune’, a verb that translates to ‘one that rubs, scrubs and scratches’. A pretty accurate way to describe raccoons and their almost human like hands!

Although native to Northern America, via deliberate and accidental releases, the raccoon found its way to Japan and Europe, where it gained some further interesting names. In Germany it was known as ‘Waschbär’ or ‘wash-bear’ so named because of its cute, cuddly bear like appearance and its apparent habit of ‘washing’ food before eating it. The French gave it a slightly less appealing name, the ‘raton-laveur’ or the ‘washing rat’. And today, raccoons are often called ‘trash pandas’ (famous from Guardians of the Galaxy) for their love of scrabbling through your garbage and their panda like markings, which I think is a slightly more appealing name than the washing rat; at least pandas are considered pretty cute! [2]. 

Evolution and Taxonomy 

So, we have a breakdown of the name, but where did these cute critters evolve from? Raccoons belong to the Procyonidae family, generally omnivorous, relatively small mammals including, alongside raccoons, coatis, kinkajous, coacomistles, olingos and ringtails, and is part of the Carnivora order. In 1780 the Naturalist Gottlieb Conrad Christian Storr assigned the Raccoon to its own genus, Procyon, which translates to “before the dog/dog like”. Fossils for raccoon ancestors first show up in North America during the Miocene (a period between 23 and 5.3 million years ago) and start to diversify and move across North and South America, likely because of intense competition for food and habitat at the time [3].

The carnivora family tree; and where the Procyonidae fit in. Image from evolution of modern mammals and the cenozoic


There are many subspecies of raccoon, but the most common and best known in Procyon lotor, or the North American Raccoon. Although raccoons are generally considered very common and considered Least Concern on the IUCN red list, the Cozumel Raccoon is a critically endangered subspecies found only on Cozumel Island off the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Compared to the standard North American Racoon they are smaller and have a distinctive black throat band and a yellowish tail. There are thought to be less than 300 left, and some conservation is urgently needed before they go the same way as the Barbados Racoon, which is suspected to have gone extinct. 

A Cozumel raccoon: with a distinctive yellowish tail, smaller size and a dark throat patch

Range and Habitat

The Raccoon is native to the Northern United States, with a range stretching from Canada all the way down to Panama. Until fairly recently, Raccoons were found on the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola and Jamaica, but were exterminated as a pest. They are also found in Europe and Japan, but how did they make it all that way?

There was a massive demand for their dense and durable fur in the early 20th century and so many populations were introduced in order for people to hunt for their pelts. They were also a popular pet, but their mischievous nature meant they often escaped to start a new life in the wilderness. Unfortunately, they are now considered an invasive pest, as even in the face of hunting and extermination pressures, these wily little animals have not just survived, they have thrived!  Genetic markers have shown the raccoon is a super successful invader, even though their genetic diversity is unusually low! Their omnivorous nature and tendency to eat most things they can get their grabby little hands on has made them a serious threat to many native species, particularly birds and reptiles. They also make a nuisance of themselves by causing crop damage and mayhem in fields and gardens, and they can carry some seriously nasty bugs, like rabies and canine distemper [4]. 

Not only do they eat pretty much anything, but they can live pretty much anywhere; wetlands, marshes, forests, farmland and urban areas, although they are most commonly found in sparsely wooded areas as they like to have trees to climb when they feel threatened, and places to nest. Studies have found that around places with rivers of other bodies of water, the numbers of raccoons actually increase, as they can eat crustaceans and amphibians [5].

City Slickin’ Raccoons: Urban Adapters 

Racoons are referred to as ‘urban adapters’: animals that are dietary and habitat generalists that can change their behavior to fit into any location. A pair of glowing racoon eyes poking up out of a dumpster while it rifles through last nights takeaway for scraps is a fairly common image. They have been known to use sewers and crevices in buildings for den sites, and they use their incredible memories to make mental maps of the best food sources, their very own Raccoon Uber Eats. In fact, they utilize resources so well in built up areas, their home ranges are significantly smaller and overlap less than those of rural raccoons, who have to range further to get food [6]. However, trash may provide a convenient all you can eat buffet, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing for the raccoons. Researchers took samples from 3 different populations of racoons found from rural to urban locations and measured 3 biological factors: body mass, glucose and leptin (a hormone found in mammals that stops you feeling hungry). The racoons that lived in the city and ate frequently from dumpsters were heavier, had more glycated serum protein (an indication of a high sugar diet) and poorer dental health. Not surprisingly, human food with all its processing, sugar and fat, doesn’t make for healthy racoons, or humans for that matter! [7]

A common sight in many North American cities: a raccoon dumpster diving for some tasty human leftovers

Unfortunately, being so close to human is not always a good thing for raccoons either. As they are increasingly being found in cities and suburbs, so they are increasingly running into trouble with humans. As mentioned above, they frequently cause mayhem in peoples gardens, tipping over garbage cans and trashing gardens. They can cause destruction to crops and behind feral dogs are considered one of the most common vectors of rabies, which is not something you want to catch; without fast treatment, rabies is always fatal. 

Fortunately, the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria has some top tips for those living cheek to furry cheek with the masked critters:

  1. Leave raccoons alone: don’t approach them, no matter what they’re doing. 
  2. If you find baby raccoons, leave them alone too. If they’re alone, its likely the mother is just out foraging. If you get really worried, you could always ring your local animal control to come and take a look. 
  3. Make sure you keep a heavy lid on your trash cans; this will keep little grabby racoon hands out of your leftovers.
  4. DO NOT FEED; it will only encourage them to come back to the area. After all, wouldn’t you keep going back for delicious free food?

Many animal control organizations will trap raccoons for removal, but unfortunately this often leads to euthanasia, so in this case prevention is definitely better than cure [8]. The more responsible we are with our behaviors; the less likely it is racoons will have to suffer as a result. After all, despite their many issues, raccoons have a place just as we do, and they shouldn’t have to suffer because of irresponsible humans. They are plenty of ways we can all get along together. 

Behavior and Physiology

Raccoons are in general between 40-70cm, with the smallest specimens found in Florida. Racoons get especially chunky in winter, when they pack on fat to keep going; talk about some winter pounds! Perhaps their most famous feature is the ‘bandits mask’: the thick black stripes that look just like something your archetypal bank robber would use. This isn’t just a cute feature; this patch of black fur is suspected to help reduce glare and improve night vision, and researchers have found that other raccoons can use facial and tail marking to recognize each other and read behavioral cues.  

Those cute little grabby hands aren’t just for endless hours of entertainment on YouTube: the racoons most important sense is the sense of touch. It is so important in fact that two thirds of the raccoons cerebral cortex is used for interpreting the tactile world around them [5].   

A raccoon engaging in dousing behaviour – or ‘washing’ their food before eating

In fact, their dexterous paws are used for one of their most unusual behaviors; their tendency to ‘wash’ their food. In actuality, researchers think racoons are just using their incredible sense of touch to inspect their food, rubbing their hands over food items so that they appear to be washing it. They do sometimes douse their food in water, although this is suspected to be about using the water to soften the hard pads on their paws and so gain a better sense of touch, although this behavior has only ever been seen in captivity and never in the wild [9]. 

For a long time, raccoons were thought to be solitary, when in fact more recent research has shown that they do form social links, often sex specific groups. Males often hang around in groups of 2-5 members that hold exclusive territories that don’t overlap; they’re not the sharing kind. Females are more likely to have so called ‘fission-fusion’ societies, which is a term used to describe social groups that change in size and composition over time. For example, animals may sleep in a large group (fusion) and then split into smaller groups to forage (fission) [10]. Aside from their habits of creating girl gangs and boy groups, so far no one really knows what social links raccoons form. At feeding stations, the oldest raccoons have been seen to be the most dominant and get first chance for the best dinner, but there is no other characteristic that really determines who is buddies with who and who gets to be the boss [11]. 

Raccoons are not just cute and charismatic; they’re pretty brainy too! The zoologist Clinton Hart Merriam described them as ‘clever beasts’ with ‘cunning that surpasses that of the fox.’ This was fairly controversial at a time when animal intelligence was considered to be impossible and little effort was put into studies to assess animal cognition. In 1908, animal behaviour scientist proved Hart Merriam correct by carrying out multiple studies on the raccoon intelligence, showing that raccoons could open 11 out of 13 complex locks in less than 10 tries, even doing it when the orientation of the locks were changed [12]. On top of this, raccoons are known to retain memories for up to 3 years, and certain behavioural scientists are convinced (although it’s very hard to prove) that raccoons have mental imagery to help them perform complex tasks and remember the location of food and other vital resources. No wonder these canny little creatures are doing so well, even in a world dominated by humans!


[1] https://uselessetymology.com/2019/03/06/the-etymology-of-raccoon-and-coon/

[2] https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/raccoon

[3] Koepfil, K.P. Gompper, M.E. Eizirik, E. Chung-Ho, C. Linden, L. Maldonado, J.E. and Wayne, R.K. (2007) ‘Phylogeny of the Procyonidae (Mammalia:Carnivora): molecules, morphology and the Great American Interchange.’ Molecular Phylogenetic Evolution, 43(3) pp 1076-95

[4] Biedrzycka, A. Zalewski, A. Bartoszewicz, M. Okarma, H. Jedrzejewska, E. (2014) ‘The genetic structure of raccoon introduced in Central Europe reflects multiple invasion pathways.’ Biological Invasions, 16, pp 1611 – 1625

[5] Raccoons: A Natural History (2002), Samuel I Zeveloff

[6] Bozek, C.K. Prange, S. and Gehrt, S.D. (2007) ‘The influence of anthropogenic resources on multi-scale habitat selection by raccoons.’ Urban Ecosystems, 10 pp 413-425

[7] Schulte-Hostedde, A. Mazal, Z. Jardine, C.M. and Gagnon, J. (2018) ‘Enhanced access to anthropogenic food waste is related to hyperglycemia in raccoons (Procyon lotor) Conservation Physiology, 6(1)

[8] https://alexandriaanimals.org/help-theres-a-raccoon-in-my-yard-resolving-conflicts-with-raccoons/

[9] A Natural History of Raccoons, Dorcas MacClintock (2003) 

[10] Hauver, S. Gehrt, S.D. Prange, S. and Dubach, J. ‘Behavioural and genetic aspects of the raccoon mating system.’ Journal of Mammalogy, 91(3), pp 749-757

[11] Hauver, S. Hirsch, B.T. Prange, S. Dubach, J. and Gehrt, S.D. (2013) ‘Age, but not sex or genetic relatedness, shapes racoon dominance patterns.’ Ethology, 119(9) pp 769-778

[12] Davis, H.B. (1907) ‘The Raccoon: a study in animal intelligence.’ The American Journal of Psychology, 18(4) pp 447-489

[13] Pettit, M. (2010) ‘The problem of raccoon intelligence in behaviourist America.’ The British Journal for the History of Science’ 43(3) pp 391-421


Massive Thank You to Rachael Da Silva from the UK for this write up! Please follow her on Instagram and her wildlife artwork at tilly_mint08

September 22, 2021
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