by Jacob Mattie, Peak Associate
Whether they’re breaking into student residences, learning how to use the automatic doors in the AQ, or stealing the fish in the reflection pond, raccoons are the most involved out of all the wildlife on SFU’s Burnaby campus. They’re large enough to be noticed, cute enough to gather legions of devoted fans, and devious enough to find a way into anywhere with food. But what are they exactly?
The name “raccoon” originates from the Powhatan people of the East coast whose word for them is “aroughcun.” This roughly translates to “one that rubs, scrubs, and scratches with its hands” and has been adapted by the English language into the term we all know and love.
In Latin nomenclature, a raccoon’s name, procyon lotor, is a little less clear. Translating to “before-dog washer,” the name serves to illustrate the raccoon’s tendency to handle things with its paws. Raccoons were thought to be related to dogs, badgers, bears, or cats, and were thus the source of much controversy among European taxonomists. Given the bear-associated name ursus lotor by Carl Linnaeus (father of modern taxonomy), raccoons were subsequently renamed by Gottlieb Conrad Christian Storr, who believed they were more doglike. In fact, raccoons are not closely related to dogs at all. The genus procyon, of which raccoons are near-exclusive members, marks them as the relatives to otters, skunks, weasels, and distantly, bears. Get rekt Storr.
Raccoons’ bear-like tendencies remain fixed in many other languages around the world. Ranging from Norwegian to Mandarin to Italian (and many others), raccoons are known in some form as “wash-bear.” They earn this name from their fixation with touch. Much like how we as humans are sight-based, dolphins are reliant on their sense of hearing, and dogs live through their noses, a raccoon’s primary sense is touch. 65% of their brains are dedicated to tactile input — more than any other studied mammal.
The tough, calloused layer of skin that covers their paws softens in water, which can make a raccoon’s tactile senses more sensitive. In conjunction with the whiskers that surround their fingers, raccoons can identify a whole host of characteristics — including whether something is edible — by touch alone. This is hugely valuable in the wild, as they can then investigate new objects while keeping their heads up to survey the world around them. Their incredible sense of touch is possible because of the tiny whiskers on their hands that work similarly to cats’ whiskers.
Native to North America, raccoons are spread across the continent. With habitats ranging from cold grasslands to tropical areas, raccoons are generally happy living near a water source. Although fantastic swimmers and moderately skilled hunters, raccoons tend to not be picky in their choice of food. They favour meals that are easily accessible, and don’t require too much effort to obtain. They can eat just about any type of food they can get their paws on, ranging from fresh leaves and acorns, to frogs, birds, and snakes. This also includes whatever momentarily unsupervised snack you packed to eat between lectures. The majority of a raccoon’s diet during the winter consists of worms and insects.
One of the raccoon’s defining traits, aside from its bandit mask and people-like fingers, is its curiosity. As one of the first and most prominent examples of curiosity in the animal world, raccoons were a source of controversy among psychologists and behaviourists. The “free ideas” of a raccoon — the act of finding creative solutions and investigation of objects or places without hunger or fear-based motivation — had previously been described as an exclusively human behaviour. Amidst accusations of bias and gullibility from the opponents of this, raccoons became somewhat of a taboo subject, and associated research “fell out of favour” for a few decades.
To this day, raccoons are rarely chosen as research animals. Despite the promise of their startling intelligence, they are generally considered too clever for experiments. In the experiments that have been performed, raccoons often found ways to cheat the system to obtain more rewards, faster, and with less effort. For example, in a test requiring animals to drop stones into a tube to raise the water level and bring a floating marshmallow within reach, one raccoon figured out a way to tip the tube over to get the marshmallow. This is in line with a raccoon’s curiosity-based methodology: rather than finding the most efficient solution, one that works is good enough.
Further dissuading researchers, raccoons have proven to be cunning escape artists. Whether by studying the scientist’s routine in opening their cages, by their own creativity, or simply by gnawing through the cage bars, they have invariably escaped. In an infamous case, raccoons escaped their cages and were later found inside the (hidden) ventilation shafts. The raccoons became hostile when cornered, leading to an unpleasant situation for these researchers and the decline in attempts to study raccoons in a laboratory setting.
However, it has been concluded raccoons are among some of the smartest mammals — just under humans, monkeys, and the great apes (e.g. chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, etc.). Raccoons were able to remember which door hid a treat, despite being distracted before being able to make their choice — something dogs and rats failed to do.
It’s their intelligence that allowed raccoons to thrive in an urban setting — raccoons are known to be more common in cities than in the wild. As one of the few animals whose populations have increased with the development of cities, their success has been attributed to their ability to identify and avoid danger (mainly in the form of busy roadway intersections), find shelter (often making use of human buildings), and match humans step-for-step in the arms race for developing animal-proof trash cans.
In some parts of the world, raccoons are kept as pets. Though cute, raccoons are generally considered to make poor pets, as males are known to become aggressive as they mature. However, they are among the few animals able to transition from domestic to wild life. Despite the temptation, the domestication of a wild raccoon is not recommended. A high percentage of raccoons carry a roundworm parasite that can cause harm to humans. Raccoons can also carry rabies, but although there have been no reported cases of this in BC, a raccoon’s teeth remain pretty sharp, and can cause significant harm, rabies or not.
Northern raccoons conserve energy over winter by becoming inactive, going into a state called torpor — akin to how bugs sleep (or a student feels after having finished a midterm) for most of the winter. While torpor is similar in principle to hibernation, there is a distinction between the two. Hibernation is recognized by a drop in body temperature, which does not occur in overwintering raccoons.
Stealing is a very common hobby among raccoons — they will find a way to take anything they want. So keep an eye on your snacks, keep an eye on your affections, and remember raccoons are coming for both.