Raccoons are foxlike carnivores of North and South America that belong to the same family (Procyonidae) as the coatis, kinkajou, and the lesser panda. The most common species is the northern raccoon (Procyon lotor), which has numerous subspecies, all with the famous black mask on their faces and rings of dark color on their tails. They are found throughout the United States, in central Canada, and south into Central America. Because of their long, warm, useful fur, they have also been introduced into other countries, notably Russia in 1936. Several other species of raccoon are found on various islands in the Caribbean.
An adult raccoon can be fairly large, with a head and body length of 2 ft (61 cm), plus a very fluffy tail up to 15 in (40 cm) long. A northern animal may weigh up to 30 lb (13.6 kg), while a raccoon in the Florida Keys may weigh only 6 lb (2.7 kg). Although it has a soft undercoat of uniformly tannish color, a raccoon's coarse guard hairs are striped light and dark (often brown and yellow), giving the animal a grizzled appearance. Raccoons live in just about any habitat, from marsh to prairie, to forest, to suburb. The darkness of their coloring depends on their habitat. Animals of arid regions are lightest, those of damp forests are darkest. Starting in late winter, they molt all their fur, starting at the top of the head. It is autumn before the new fur coat is complete. Raccoons have fairly large, pointed ears, about 2 in (5 cm) long with white edges and a white tip.
Raccoons have "hands" rather than paws on their front feet. The five long, narrow, flexible fingers are quite sensitive and able to make delicate manipulations. The palms of the hands (as well as the soles of the feet) are hairless. A major part of the animal's brain is directed toward sensing things with its hands. The name raccoon comes from an Algonquin word meaning "he scratches with his hands." Raccoons are omnivorous, and feed primarily at night. They have acute senses of smell and hearing that direct them to food. They are drawn to crayfish, fruit, birds' eggs, nuts, young grass shoots, little reptiles, mollusks, poultry, insects, and the garbage from any can they manage to tip over. Raccoons use their sensitive hands to investigate whatever they find. This probably plays an important role in their curiosity. They enjoy manipulating whatever they come across, and that often turns them into puzzle solvers. They can easily open latches, garbage can lids, and whatever else they want to concentrate on.
The lotor in the raccoon's scientific name means "washer." Tradition has it that raccoons wash their food in water before eating. This myth arose because captive raccoons have been observed dunking their food in water. In the wild, raccoons find much of their food in the water, and scientists now think that captive raccoons are acting the same way they would in the wild by "find ing" their food in the water.
In the northern part of their range, raccoons eat during the summer and then sleep away much of the winter. However, this dormancy, which may last four months, is not true hibernation. Their metabolism does not slow, their body temperature does not fall, and they will emerge from their dens during periods of relatively warm weather. During this winter sleep, raccoons live off fat reserves accumulated the previous summer and may lose as much as 50% of their body weight. In the southern parts of their range raccoons are active throughout the year. Raccoons are solitary animals, and try to avoid one another. In places where food is plentiful, several raccoons may feed together, but they still tend to keep their distance from one another.
Late in the winter, raccoons find mates. A male will mate with several females but a female will mate with only one male. After a gestation of 54-65 days, the female gives birth to two to seven cubs (usually three or four) in a den, often a hole in a hollow tree. Each cub is about 4 in (10 cm) long and weighs about 2 oz (62 g). They nurse for several weeks, as the mother gradually spends more and more time away from the den. Soon the mother moves the babies to a den on the ground, and they begin to explore their new world. Before winter, the young raccoons have dispersed to their own homes. Young females can produce their first litter when they are about a year old; males first mate when they are about two years old.
The crab-eating raccoon (Procyon cancrivorous) is a semi-aquatic species found in Central and northern South America. It has wiry red fur, with the familiar black mask and tail rings. It feeds on fish and land crabs, and willingly leaves the water to climb trees.
A close relative of the raccoon is the ringtail (Bassariscus astutus), or cacomistle, which lives in the western United States and down into central Mexico. Smaller than the raccoon, it has a white mask instead of black. Its tail is distinctly marked with bands of black and white. Before domestic cats were brought to the New World, cacomistles were often kept as pets.
Raccoons are intelligent and adaptable. They have been able to take most changes in their habitats in stride. However, the five island raccoon species are threatened, as are many island mammals worldwide. The Barbados raccoon (P. gloveralleni) may already be extinct.
In recent years, common raccoons have been hard hit with rabies. Because people regard them as cute and may try to touch them, the rabies may be spread from raccoons to people. Since 1992, an anti-rabies vaccine that can be distributed through food has been available for use in areas with many raccoons.
Holmgren, Virginia C. Raccoons: In Folklore, History and Today's Backyards. Capra Press, 1990.
MacClintock, Doracas. A Natural History of Raccoons. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1981.
O'Toole, Christopher, and John Stidworthy. Mammals: The Hunters. New York: Facts on File, 1988.
Patent, Dorothy Hinshaw. Raccoons, Coatimundis, and Their Family. New York: Holiday House, 1979.
Jean F. Blashfield