Sporting a black mask and ringed tail, the raccoon is among the most common mammals in North America
Sporting a black mask and ringed tail, the raccoon is among the most common mammals in North America.
Both vilified as a nuisance and loved for its fascinating behavior, the raccoon in an intelligent, clever animal that gets up to trouble with surprising enthusiasm and alacrity. A true survivor of the animal kingdom, it has thrived in the midst of human activity when so many other species have declined.
4 Incredible Raccoon Facts!
- The name of the raccoon is adapted from a native Powhatan term meaning “animal that scratches with its hands.” The Powhatan were native to Virginia.
- People have interacted with these animals for as long as humans settled in the Americas. Raccoons were considered to be an object of mythology. They were also a source of food for Native Americans and European settlers alike. And since their fur was fashioned into hats and coats, entire industries sprung up around trapping it.
- Raccoons are animals with exquisitely sensitive paws, which contain four to five times as many sensory cells as the rest of the body. Approximately three-quarters of the sensory part of the brain is dedicated to touch alone.
- The raccoon’s evolutionary ancestor probably originated in Europe some 25 million years ago. After crossing over to the Americas, these ancestors settled in the tropics around Central or South America. Once modern raccoons evolved, they spread back north to the temperate climates.
Raccoon Scientific Name
The scientific name of the raccoon is Procyon lotor. Procyon is a Greek term that roughly means “before the dog” or “dog-like” (it also happens to be the name of a very bright star in the constellation Canis Minor). The species scientific name lotor roughly translates from Latin to the washer, referring to the raccoon’s unusual behavior of dipping its food in the water.
To most people in North America, the word raccoon brings to mind only a single species, the common or northern raccoon, but there are two other species in the genus: the South American raccoon and the Cozumel raccoon. Although similar in appearance, they do exhibit some subtle differences. The Cozumel raccoon (also known as the pygmy raccoon, due to its smaller size) has a black throat band and a golden yellow tail. For the sake of identification, it’s sufficient to know that the common raccoon is the only species endemic to North America.
There are more than 20 recognized subspecies of the common raccoon, including specific Florida, Texas, Baja California, and Snake River Valley variants. Many other subspecies are island specific and don’t interbreed with other populations. Each one varies slightly in skull structure, teeth formula, and fur.
These animals are one of the most recognizable animals in North America. It has a pointed snout, a wide skull, rounded ears, sharp teeth, a big hunched back (as a result of the hind legs being bigger than the front legs), and a bushy tail with four to 10 black rings. The most distinctive characteristics are the black markings around the eyes that resemble a mask (though not every raccoon has this). The purpose of this mask is not entirely known. It might help the raccoons identify each other. Or it might enhance the raccoon’s night vision. Or maybe it evolved simply due to random chance.
Much of the animal’s coat consists of dense gray underfur to insulate it from the cold. Almost all raccoons have the same general color, but an all or mostly white albino variant does exist in nature. There is only about a one in 10,000 chance that an albino raccoon will be born and an even smaller chance they will survive long in the wild since the white color makes them stand out to predators. The elusive albino raccoon is so rare that each new report of one draws a lot of attention. In 2019, a Windsor photographer snapped a picture of two albinos together in the same family. This was estimated to be a one in 750,000 chance meeting.
Raccoons are animals that average between 2 and 3 feet long from tail to the skull and weigh between 14 and 23 pounds, about the size of a small dog. The male boar is slightly larger than the female sow by about 10 to 30%. But regardless of sex, their body weight fluctuates widely throughout the year. They grow fatter in the winter and slimmer in the summer.
Aided by its excellent night vision and keen eyes, the raccoon is a nocturnal predator that comes out at night to feast. It spends the remaining daytime asleep in its resident rock crevices, hollow trees, and dens, rarely leaving the immediate area unless food is unavailable. Unlike many other mammals, raccoons remain largely active during the winter seasons, when they live off their body fat, sometimes losing up to half their weight before the arrival of spring. Obviously, the northern-most populations must pack on the most pounds to survive the harsh winter.
One of the underappreciated aspects of the animal is its surprising agility. On the ground, it can run at speeds up to 15 miles per hour to evade slower predators. They are also excellent swimmers (though lacking in waterproof fur, it spends only a limited amount of time in the water). And with the dexterous hands, they can clamber up trees and then leap to the ground from a distance of 40 feet without being harmed. This appears to provide a means of escape when the raccoon is under significant threat. In 2018, a particularly ambitious raccoon scaled the UBS tower in St. Paul, Minnesota, offering a showcase of the raccoon’s amazing abilities.
There is a popular misconception that the raccoon is a solitary animal. But after close observation, it was revealed that they do appear to have a limited social life that revolves around gender-specific groups. When living space becomes tight, multiple animals will share a common area and meet regularly to feed and rest. They aren’t very vocal, except in the relationship between mother and kits, but it does have a set of harsh screams, hisses, growls, and snarls to warn away other animals.
As mentioned previously, the raccoon is an animal with an excellent sense of touch. Its dexterous paws are able to manipulate objects and open up shells or seeds. Raccoons also perform well in intelligence and memory tests; it has the same ability to solve complex problems as many other intelligent species.
The “washing” behavior for which the animal is named actually isn’t washing at all. Instead, they appear to be dipping their hands into the water as a way to search for food. Once they have found something, the raccoons will rub their food with their highly sensitive paws and remove any unwanted bits. Since they feed so frequently near banks and shorelines, it can contribute to the mistaken impression that the raccoon is washing its food in the water.
The raccoon is endemic to a large temperate and tropical habitat stretching between southern Canada and the northern part of South America, though it was later introduced into new habitats like Japan and Europe. These extremely adaptable creatures can thrive in woodlands, grasslands, suburban, and even urban areas; almost anywhere with enough water and some trees or other large structures for protection.
Raccoon Diet and Predators
The raccoon’s diet can best be described as opportunistic, varying from one location to another based on food availability.
What does the raccoon eat?
The raccoon prefers a plant-based diet consisting of seeds, berries, nuts, and tubers. It will supplement this with fish, insects, eggs, crustaceans, and other small birds and mammals it finds in the water, snatches from nests, or uncovers in small holes and crevices. The raccoon can be a bit of a pest since it will also raid gardens, trash cans, pet food, and any other morsels left around unprotected. The raccoon handles the food with its hands and chews with its sharp teeth.
What eats the raccoon?
Raccoon Reproduction, Babies, and Lifespan
Raccoons breed once per year in the February to June season, peaking around March. The male will sometimes expand in the natural territory in search of receptive females to court during her brief conception period. Stronger males usually get first dibs on choosing a mate, but even weaker males often have the opportunity to produce offspring.
After a gestation period of about two months, the female will give birth to a litter of three to seven kits at a time. She bears full responsibility for protecting and feeding her blind and helpless young, while the father plays no role at all in the baby’s development. Dependent on the mother for everything, the kit’s eyes finally open after a few weeks of age. By about 20 weeks, the raccoon baby is ready to begin foraging with its mother and learn the basics of survival. Play also appears to be an integral part of the baby’s learning and development. It takes until the following spring before the raccoons are ready to live independently of their mother.
The raccoon has a very short life expectancy of two or three years in the wild, because it often falling prey to predators, diseases, or fast-moving vehicles early in their lives. If they manage to survive adolescence, then the life expectancy increases to five years. When it’s completely free of threats, the raccoon can live to 20 years in captivity.
According to the IUCN Red List, the common raccoon is a species of least concern (though the closely-related Cozumel raccoon is critically endangered). The exact population numbers are unknown, but they are likely to be very high. For instance, in wet lowland areas, it is estimated that raccoons have a population density of some 50 per square kilometer (almost three times that per square mile). In forested or agricultural areas, there are some 20 per square kilometer. Over larger territories, there are many millions of them. Given the raccoon’s sheer ubiquity, no specific conservation efforts are required to protect this species, but the numbers are sometimes carefully managed to prevent overpopulation.
Raccoons in the Zoo
Despite how common they are in the wild, these animals are still a popular exhibit at the San Diego Zoo, the Seneca Park Zoo, the Minnesota Zoo, the Toronto Zoo, the Tulsa Zoo, the Lehigh Valley Zoo in Pennsylvania, and the Cosley Zoo near Chicago.View all 24 animals that start with R
Raccoon Scientific Classification
- Scientific Name
- Procyon lotor
Raccoon Conservation Status
- Main Prey
- Fish, Nuts, Berries, Corn
- Fun Fact
- Sporting a black mask and ringed tail, the raccoon is among the most common mammals in North America
- Woodland areas close to water
- Bobcat, Foxes, Wolves, Mountain Lions
- Average Litter Size
- Favorite Food
- Known to wash their food before eating it!
Raccoon Physical Characteristics
- Skin Type
- Top Speed
- 15 mph
- 12-16 years
- 3.5-9kg (7.7-19.8lbs)
Click through all of our Raccoon images in the gallery.
Raccoon FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Are Raccoons herbivores, carnivores, or omnivores?
Raccoons are Omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and other animals.
What Kingdom do Raccoons belong to?
Raccoons belong to the Kingdom Animalia.
What class do Raccoons belong to?
Raccoons belong to the class Mammalia.
What phylum to Raccoons belong to?
Raccoons belong to the phylum Chordata.
What family do Raccoons belong to?
Raccoons belong to the family Procyonidae.
What order do Raccoons belong to?
Raccoons belong to the order Carnivora.
What type of covering do Raccoons have?
Raccoons are covered in Fur.
What genus do Raccoons belong to?
Raccoons belong to the genus Procyon.
In what type of habitat do Raccoons live?
Raccoons live in woodland areas close to water.
What is the main prey for Raccoons?
Raccoons eat fish, nuts, berries, and corn.
What type of animal is a raccoon?
The raccoon is a type of placental mammal and a Carnivora. Its closest living relatives include the lesser-known olingos, ringtails, and the coatis.
What does raccoon poop look like?
Raccoon poop is typically dark, tube-shaped, and contains undigested plant matter. In the wild, raccoons prefer to defecate near trees, stumps, and large rocks. But when they come into contact with people, they may defecate in woodpiles, attics, garages, decks, and haylofts. You should be careful about handling it since raccoons can carry pathogens and diseases in their poop.
What do raccoon tracks look like?
Raccoon tracks are easy to identify from the very long hindfoot (almost pointed at the heel) and the shorter front foot. Each foot has five toes pointing forward and separated slightly from each other, which makes the tracks appear surprisingly human-like compared to many other mammals. The raccoon moves in a somewhat diagonal pattern as well.
How do you get rid of raccoons?
If raccoons are proving to be a nuisance, then you should call a local wildlife or animal service so they can capture and move the raccoon in a humane manner.
Are raccoons rodents?
Are raccoons dangerous?
Raccoons pose little danger to people. Although they are sometimes a carrier of rabies, actual transmission between people and raccoons is relatively rare. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to leave wild raccoons alone to avoid any possibility of transmission.
What are some predators of Raccoons?
Predators of Raccoons include bobcats, foxes, wolves, and mountain lions.
How many babies do Raccoons have?
The average number of babies a Raccoon has is 5.
What is an interesting fact about Raccoons?
Raccoons are known to wash their food before eating it!
What is the scientific name for the Raccoon?
The scientific name for the Raccoon is Procyon lotor.
What is the lifespan of a Raccoon?
Raccoons can live for 12 to 16 years.
How fast is a Raccoon?
A Raccoon can travel at speeds of up to 15 miles per hour.
- Animal Diversity Web, Available here: https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Procyon_lotor/
- National Geographic, Available here: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/06/raccoon-climbing-building-intelligence-facts-animals/
- PBS, Available here: https://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/raccoon-nation-raccoon-fact-sheet/7553/