Common Name: Raccoon – A colloquialism of the word ärähkun (the orthography is not well established) from the Algonquian language of the Native American Tribes in the eastern Mid-Atlantic region. The word ärähkunem roughly translates as “he scratches with his hands.” The reference is to the raccoon’s dexterous and tactile use of its forepaws. The anglicized name is attributed to Captain John Smith in the 1624 Generall Historie of Virginia: “There is a beast they call the aroughcun (raccoon), much like a badger, but useth to live in trees as squirrels do.”
Scientific Name: Procyon lotor – Procyon s the brightest star in the constellation Canis Minor (Lesser Dog). The name is of Greek origin and means “before the dog,” indicating the star’s position relative to its constituent constellation. The species name lotor is derived from the Latin verb meaning “to wash,” which has various forms including lavare and lotum. Raccoons characteristically wash their food before eating dependent on the proximity of a water source.
Potpourri: The raccoon is the largest and most corpulent member of the Procyonidae, a family indigenous to the Americas that are taxonomically grouped according to a similar morphology that includes broad, short faces, long tails with contrasting colored bands, erect ears, distinctive facial markings, and five digit feet that are plantigrade (they walk on the flattened sole like bears and humans). The other procyonids are the coatis, kinkajous, olingos, ringtails (or ring-tailed cats) and the cacomistles, predominantly of subtropical Central and South American habitats. The exceptions are the ringtail which inhabits arid regions of the Southwest and the raccoon which is more common in the East and Midwest but can be found throughout North America.
As a New World family, the procyonids were unknown to the nascent biologists who sought to understand the complexities of life and organize it according to morphological associations. Carolus Linnaeus, the father of the binomial nomenclature of taxonomy, found the raccoons to be similar in manner to the bears and initially assigned the scientific name Ursus cauda elongata, meaning ‘bear with the long tail,” changing it to Ursus lotor (washing bear) some years later. The genus Procyon was proffered as an alternative when their distinctive and separate nature became manifest. The use of a name that meant “before the dog” may have been to an evolving belief that the procyonids were more similar to the dogs than the bears. More recent fossil evidence and phylogenic assessment has established that the raccoon family is actually more closely related to the Ursidae (bear) family, both having a common ancestor that separates them from the Canidae (dog) family. Ironically, the raccoon as “washing bear” has persisted in many languages: waschbär in German, wasbeer in Dutch and orsetto lavatore in Italian, the French offering their characteristically independent Gallic association with raton laveur which translates as “washing rat.”
The appearance of mammals coincided with the extinction of the dinosaurs and the breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea at the end of the Mesozoic Era 65 million years ago (mya). Meat-eating carnivores first appeared in the Eocene Epoch of the Cenozoic Era about 40 mya. The omnivorous procyonids first appear in the fossil record somewhat later, in the early Miocene (25 mya) in Eurasia and several million years later in North America, presumably by crossing Beringia, the Bering Strait land bridge where they established a nexus in Central America. It is hypothesized that their evolution from the strictly carnivorous canids (dogs) may have been precipitated by a change in climate that made the adaptability of a variegated diet necessary for survival. Although the first procyonids migrated from North America to South America about 7 mya, apparently by swimming from Central America, the real faunal diaspora occurred about 3 mya when the isthmus of Panama formed to engender the so-called great American interchange. The contrariant raccoon migrated north from Central America to occupy the evolutionary niche of the riparian (riverside) woodland, its original and still preferential habitat.
Native Americans hunted the raccoon for food and for the fur that was used for winter clothing and for ceremonial ornamentation. John Lawson, the Surveyor-General of North Carolina wrote in A New Voyage to the Carolinas in 1709 that raccoons were “Indian food” and that they were one of the chief sources of clothing for the Hatteras Indians: “The dresses of these People are so different, according to the Nation that they belong to, that it is impossible to recount all the whimsical figures that they sometimes make with their Antick (sic) Dresses.” Lewis and Clark noted the presence of raccoons in the Columbia River Basin and at their western terminus of Fort Clatsop on the Pacific coast. On February 25, 1806, Captain Meriwether Lewis made the following journal entry: “The Rackoon is found in the woody country on this coast in considerable quantities. the natives take a few of them in snars and deadfalls; tho’ appear not to vallue their skins much, and but seldom prepare them for robes.” The raccoon also figures prominently in Native American legend, a Micmac tale tells of a raccoon that tricked two blind men into fighting by stealing their food. When the raccoon was apprehended, a lump of coal from the campfire was used to draw dark circles around the eyes and dark bands on the tail as the identifying bandit-mask and striped markings of a thief.
The North American provenance and subsequent global spread is testimony to the adaptability, ingenuity, and fecundity of Procyon lotor. There are active raccoon colonies in Europe, Russia and Japan owing to intentional human introduction for sport hunting, fur trapping or as pets (that subsequently escaped) respectively. The omnivorous diet of the raccoon is perhaps the most important survival factor. With roughly an even balance between invertebrates (worms, insects and crustaceans), plants (fruits and nuts) and vertebrates (fish and amphibians), the raccoon can make do with almost any available foodstuff, a fact that is reflected in their dentation, which is a cross between the carnassial teeth of the carnivore and the molar teeth of the herbivore. Its preference for aquatic prey is evident in the preferred and most typical habitat along riverbanks in wooded regions. This habitat also offers a palladium from predators, as the raccoon is an adept swimmer and an accomplished climber, both necessary to compensate for its short legs and round torso that do not lend themselves to pedestrian flight. The raccoon can swim at speeds of up to 3 miles per hour, can stay in the water for hours, and can descend a tree headfirst by rotating its hind feet backwards, a trait it shares with the eastern gray squirrel.
The dexterity of the forepaws of the raccoon is reminiscent of primates, lacking only their opposing thumb functionality. However, the five finger-like digits can be individually manipulated much like a human hand since there is no webbing between them as is the case with other members of the carnivore family. A second factor that contributes to the tactility of the digits is that a major portion of the raccoons total cerebral capacity is devoted to the sense of touch. The net result of digital tactility and dexterity is a sophisticated phalangeal capability that provides the raccoon with the ability to open doors, pick locks, remove the laces from shoes and unzip zippers. The importance of touch as a means of investigating foreign objects is thought to be related to the behavior known as “dousing” which refers to the observation that raccoons wash their food, the genesis of the “washing bear” moniker. Another factor promoting dousing is that the forepaws are covered with a protective layer of horny skin that becomes more pliable when moist, thus enhancing the tactility of the “fingers.” However, the dosing behavior is generally only observed in captive raccoons kept near water, as wild raccoons do not carry their food to water to wash it. The most logical explanation of washing or dousing is then that captive raccoons are instinctually emulating the cleaning of the amphibian and crustacean prey after capture along the favored shoreline habitats of wild raccoons; it is in other words an innate activity.
The social behavior of the raccoon is not atypical of terrestrial mammals with a general tendency toward independence in the male and maternal nurturing of the juvenile raccoons called kits by the female. However, in the case of the raccoon, they occupy a middle ground between the pack behavior of the canines and the solitude of the felines. They have a general tendency to form small unisex groups ofthree or four individuals, the female group sharing a common home range with a recognized meeting area and the male group cooperating against external predator threats and unwanted alien raccoon competition. Mating behavior is also biased against the extremes of single alpha male domination of a female coterie on the one hand and unequivocal pair bonding on the other. The quintessential process starts in the spring when males search their rather loosely defined home ranges of between 0.2 and 20 square miles for females during the rut, copulating when successful for more than an hour over several nights. Since the male domination instinct is not predominant, the weaker males also participate in the coital act with other available females or even the same female, as studies have shown that about a third of all female raccoons mate with more than one male. Parturition results about two months later, the female retiring to an isolated den without any subsequent participation by the male. Two to seven kits or cubs are born in late spring which affords the full summer for the initially blind and deaf juveniles to grow and mature in advance of the trial of winter; they stay with the mother at least through the fall to its onset.
The raccoon is second only to the beaver in the fur trade that heralded the penetration and exploration of North America with the peripatetic French coureurs de bois at the fore. This is in no small measure because the rivers and streams that afforded the fur trappers passage into the interior wilderness were teeming with their intended prey. While the beaver pelt fetched premium prices due to the popularity of beaver top hats (silk top hats first appeared in the 1840’s), the plebian raccoon skin became an article of local trade and local custom. The “coonskin” cap was surely of far more import in the legend rather than the fact of the American frontier, neither Davy Crockett nor Daniel Boone likely ever wore one. Raccoon pelts were used as currency in the specie-poor barter economies of rural areas. According to Hiram Chittenden in The American Fur Trade in the Far West, raccoon skins were worth 25 cents apiece (compared to a four dollar beaver pelt) in 1832. The members of the assembly of the short-lived State of Franklin comprised of Eastern Tennessee mountain counties were paid three raccoon skins a day. The popularity of the raccoon as a symbol of the American frontier is manifest by its use as a party symbol for the Whig Party that elected two soldier presidents: William Henry Harrison in 1840 and Zachary Taylor in 1850. The hunting of raccoons for fur continues unabated. About 4 million animals were killed in the United States annually during the 1980’s. Regionally, the Pennsylvania Game Commission reported that “the raccoon harvest peaked in 1985-1986 at 532,898 compared to 142,808 last year (2008),” and the Pennsylvania Trapper’s Association reported a peak in raccoon pelt prices in 2006-2007 at $17.50. The price in 2008 was $9.79, a virtual steal.