Most people recognize raccoons by the black mask that runs across their eyes and their bushy, ringed tails. Their front paws resemble human hands in their dexterity and make the raccoon skillful at many tasks. Fur color can vary from grey to reddish brown to light brown. Raccoons weigh from 1.8 to 10.4 kilograms, averaging 6 to 7 kilograms. Males are usually slightly larger than females. Body length ranges from 603 to 950 mm and tail length from 192 to 405 mm. (Nowak, 1991; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)
Raccoons are native to both the Neotropical and Nearctic regions. They have also been introduced to the Palearctic region. They are found across southern Canada, throughout most of the United States, and into northern South America. They have been introduced to parts of Asia and Europe and are now widely distributed there as well. (Nowak, 1991; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)
Raccoons are extremely adaptable. They can be found in many kinds of habitats, from warm tropical areas to cold grasslands. Raccoons prefer to live in moist woodland areas. However, they can also be found in farmlands, suburban, and urban areas. Raccoons prefer to build dens in trees, but may also use woodchuck burrows, caves, mines, deserted buildings, barns, garages, rain sewers, or houses. They easily live near humans. They require ready access to water.
During the mating season, raccoon males frequently expand their home ranges, presumably to include the home ranges of more females as potential mates. Females are sometimes found temporarily denning with males during the mating season. After mating there is no association of males and females. (Wilson and Ruff, 1999)
Raccoons generally have one litter per year. Litter sizes range from 3 to 7, but are typically 4. A period of 63 to 65 days pass from the time that they mother becomes pregnant to the time that the babies are born. Sexual maturity often occurs in females before they are one year old, and in males at two years. Mating season is from February through June, with most mating in March. Northern populations tend to breed earlier than southern populations. Young are born blind and helpless in a tree den, their eyes open at 18 to 24 days of age, and they are weaned after 70 days. By 20 weeks old the young regularly forage with their mother at night and continue to stay in the den with her. Mothers and young often den nearby even after they have reached maturity. (Nowak, 1991; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)
Raccoons may live up to 16 years in the wild, but most don't make it past their second year. If they survive their youth, raccoons may live an average of 5 years in the wild. The primary causes of death are humans (hunting, trapping, cars) and malnutrition. A captive animal was recorded living for 21 years. (Nowak, 1991)
Raccoons are nocturnal and seldom active in the daytime. During extremely cold, snowy periods raccoons have been observed sleeping for long periods at a time, but do not hibernate. Raccoons tend to stay by themselves; however, a mother and her young will stay together for a period after birth. They shuffle when they walk; however, they can reach speeds of 15 miles per hour on the ground. Raccoons climb easily and are not bothered by a drop of 35 to 40 feet. As well as being excellent climbers, raccoons are strong swimmers. (Nowak, 1991; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)
Raccoons have a highly developed sense of touch. Their human-like front paws enable the raccoon to handle and open prey and climb with ease. They usually pick up food with their front paws before putting it in their mouth. With their fine sense of hearing raccoons are also especially alert. Similarly, raccoons have excellent night vision. (Nowak, 1991)
Raccoons are omnivorous and will eat most things that they find. Corn may make up a large part of the diet in agricultural areas. Crayfish, insects, rodents, frogs, fish, and bird eggs are all possible components of a raccoon's diet. Raccoons consume more invertebrate prey than vertebrate prey. In some areas raccoons eat more fruits and nuts than animal prey. In areas populated by people, raccoons also include trash and other foods in their diet. (Nowak, 1991; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)
Raccoons escape many predators by remaining inactive during the day in a den. While active they remain alert and can be aggressive. They are preyed on by large predators such as coyotes, wolves, large hawks, and owls. Their young may be taken by snakes as well.
Raccoons impact the population sizes of their primary prey items. In some areas where they eat mainly one type of prey, such as crayfish, clams, or insects, this can have a large impact on community composition.
Raccoons may be a nuisance to farmers. They can cause damage to orchards, vineyards, melon patches, cornfields, peanut fields, and chicken yards. Their habit of moving on to the next ear of corn before finishing the first makes them especially damaging to fields of both sweet corn and field corn. Raccoons also carry sylvatic plague, rabies, and other diseases and parasites that can be transmitted to humans and domestic animals. (Nowak, 1991; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)
Raccoon fur has been harvested for a long time. During the 1920s, "coon" coats were popular making the fur of one raccoon worth about $14. Although demand is no longer as high, raccoon fur may still be sold as imitation mink, otter, or seal fur. Raccoons are also eaten in some areas. (Nowak, 1991)
Since the turn of the 20th century raccoon populations have grown and their distribution may have expanded. Their ability to adapt to human-dominated landscapes has contributed to their expansion in numbers and range. On the other hand, small isolated island populations of raccoons may be threatened. Some populations on islands in the Caribbean are rare and some may have become extinct. (Nowak, 1991; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)
Raccoons are commonly associated with washing their food. Their latin name, lotor, means "the washer." People sometimes keep young raccoons as pets, because they are curious and intelligent. Once grown, however, raccoons can be quite destructive in and around homes.
Tanya Dewey (author, editor), Animal Diversity Web.
Rebecca Fox (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
Gable, T. 2000. "The Gable's Raccoon World" (On-line). Accessed 16 May 2000 at http://www.geocities.com/RainForest/Vines/4892/main.html.
League, K. 2005. "Wildlife Species: Procyon lotor" (On-line). Fire Effects Information System. Accessed June 30, 2005 at http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/wildlife/mammal/prlo/.
Nowak, R. 1991. Walker's Mammals of the World. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Wilson, D., S. Ruff. 1999. The Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals. Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution Press.