What Are Raccoons? Where Does Raccoon Get Its Name From?
Raccoons are attractive carnivores living in the Americas. There are about seven species of raccoon, in addition to the familiar northern (North American) raccoon which are 60 to 120cm (2 to 4 ft) long. They have grayish fur and, usually, a distinctive ‘masked’ appearance due to darker fur around the eyes and the front of the face.
The black fur works just like the black stickers athletes wear under their eyes: The dark color absorbs incoming light, reducing glare that would otherwise bounce into their eyes and obstruct their vision. At night, when raccoons are most active, less peripheral light makes it easier for them to perceive contrast in the objects of their focus, which is essential for seeing in the dark.
Bandit-masked raccoons are a familiar sight just about everywhere, because they will eat just about anything. Although generally found around streams, where they hunt for fish and frogs, they are frequently seen near human dwellings where they scavenge from dustbins and readily take tit bits. Raccoons also eat fruit and plants—including those grown in human gardens and farms.
These ring-tailed animals may inhabit a tree hole, fallen log, or a house’s attic. Females have one to seven cubs in early summer. The young raccoons often spend the first two months or so of their lives high in a tree hole. Later, mother and children move to the ground when the cubs begin to explore on their own. Raccoons in the northern parts of their range gorge themselves in spring and summer to store up body fat. They then spend much of the winter asleep in a den.
Raccoons have some of the most dexterous hands in nature, Native Americans were the first to note their unusual paws. The English word raccoon comes from the Powhatan word aroughcun, which means “animal that scratches with its hands.” The Aztecs went in a similar direction when naming the raccoon. They named it mapachitli or “one who takes everything in its hands.” Today mapache means “raccoon” in Spanish.
While most animals use either sight, sound, or smell to hunt, raccoons rely on their sense of touch to locate goodies. Their front paws are incredibly dexterous and contain roughly four times more sensory receptors than their back paws—about the same ratio of human hands to feet. This allows them to differentiate between objects without seeing them, which is crucial when feeding at night.
Raccoons can heighten their sense of touch through something called dousing. To humans, this can look like the animals are washing their food, but what they’re really doing is wetting their paws to stimulate the nerve endings. Like light to a human’s eyes, water on a raccoon’s hands gives it more sensory information to work with, allowing it to feel more than it would otherwise.