10 Clever Facts About Raccoons

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iStock

Whether your home is surrounded by trees or skyscrapers (which they've been known to scale), raccoons are likely part of your local wildlife population. They are some of the most adaptable creatures in the Americas, occupying both rural and urban areas in diverse climates. Here are some things you might not know about the little masked bandits.

1. THEY'RE NAMED FOR THEIR UNIQUE HANDS.

Raccoon displaying hands.
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Raccoons have some of the most dexterous hands in nature, as anyone who's had a garden, cooler, or garbage can broken into by one of them knows. 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.

2. THEY COME IN MANY VARIETIES.

Raccoon with human.
Mauro Pimentel, AFP/Getty Images

There are six raccoon species native to North and South America. The most recognizable is Procyon lotor or the common raccoon that lives in the United States. Other varieties of the animal can be found farther south, often inhabiting tropical islands.

3. THEIR MASKS AREN'T JUST FOR SHOW.

Raccoon face up close.
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Thanks to the black markings that fall across their eyes, raccoons have been typecast as the conniving thief or trickster figure in stories for centuries. But their famous black masks do more than make them look like adorable outlaws—they also help them see clearly. 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.

4. ONE LIVED IN THE WHITE HOUSE.

First Lady Grace Coolidge holding Rebecca the raccoon.
First Lady Grace Coolidge holding Rebecca the raccoon.

It's unusual for White House pets to start as Thanksgiving dinner, but that was the case with Rebecca, the raccoon that lived with Calvin Coolidge for part of his presidency. At the time, raccoon meat wasn't a terribly uncommon sight on dinner tables in America. But once he met the live critter, Coolidge decided he was more interested in adopting her than having her for supper. Rebecca soon became part of the family, receiving an engraved collar for Christmas, taking part in the annual Easter Egg roll, and frequently accompanying the president on walks around the White House grounds. Having a wild animal in the White House may sound absurd by today's standards, but considering Coolidge's pets at the time also included a bobcat, a goose, a donkey, two lion cubs, an antelope, and a wallaby, Rebecca fit right in.

5. THEY CAN BE FOUND ACROSS THE GLOBE, THANKS TO HUMANS.

Raccoon reaching toward the camera.
Peter Steffen, AFP/Getty Images

The first raccoons were exported to Europe in the 1920s to stock fur farms. By way of an accidental bombing and some bored farmers just wanting to spice up the local wildlife, many raccoons escaped and founded a new population in the wild. Today raccoons in Europe are considered an invasive species.

The animals even ended up in Japan. Their journey there had more wholesome beginnings: In the 1970s, Japanese children were obsessed with the cuddly star of the anime cartoon Rascal the Raccoon. Kids demanded pet raccoons of their own, and at one point Japan was importing roughly 1500 of them a month. Naturally, many of these pets ended up back in the wild when they grew too big for families to take care of them properly. Japan has since prohibited importing and owning raccoons, but the descendants of that initial boom have spread to 42 of the country's 47 prefectures.

6. POPULATIONS HAVE EXPLODED.

Three raccoons outdoors.
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Raccoons are among the rare species that have actually benefited from the spread of humans. Populations in North America have skyrocketed in the past several decades, and this is despite the destruction of much of the animals' natural environment. Raccoons are adaptable enough to thrive in rural, urban, and suburban environments. In the forests, raccoons will eat birds, insects, fruits, nuts, and seeds, while in residential areas they'll scavenge for garbage and pet food. Some raccoons do their foraging in human-populated areas then retreat into the woods during the day to sleep. Others make buildings—both abandoned and occupied—their home.

7. CITY RACCOONS MAY BE MORE CLEVER THAN THEIR COUNTRY COUSINS.

Raccoon in a tree in a city.
Joyce Naltchayan, AFP/Getty Images

Raccoons are regarded by scientists as intelligent creatures, but city dwellers may notice that their local specimens reach special levels of cunning. This may be because urban raccoons are forced to outsmart human-made obstacles on a regular basis. When Suzanne MacDonald, a psychologist and biologist at York University in Toronto, outfitted city raccoons with GPS collars, she learned that they had learned to avoid major intersections. A second experiment supported the theory that raccoons accustomed to life around humans are better equipped to solve unconventional problems. MacDonald planted garbage cans containing food in urban and rural areas. When it came to opening the tricky lid, most city raccoons could figure it out while the country raccoons failed each time.

8. WE ALMOST HAD LAB RACCOONS INSTEAD OF LAB RATS.

Raccoon on tree.
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In the early 20th century, raccoons were poised to become the go-to model for animal experiments. They were some of the most curious and intelligent animals available, scientists believed, so that meant they were an obvious choice for comparative psychology studies. Though raccoons were the subject of several psychology experiments at the turn of the century, they didn't stick around in labs for long. Unlike rats, they were hard to breed and maintain in large numbers. They also had the pesky tendencies to chew through their cages, pickpocket researchers, and hide out in air vents. Despite one researcher's plan to breed a tamer strain of raccoon, the creature's future in the lab never took off.

9. THEY "SEE" WITH THEIR HANDS.

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.

10. THEY'RE RESOURCEFUL PROBLEM-SOLVERS.

Raccoon scavenges for trash.
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Give raccoons a puzzle and, as long as there's food involved, they'll usually find a way to solve it. They've not only proven this time and time again in yards and campsites but in labs as well. In the early 1900s, ethologist H.B. Davis gave 12 raccoons a series of locks to crack. To access the treats inside the boxes, they had to navigate hooks, bolts, buttons, latches, and levers, with some boxes featuring more than one lock. In the end, the raccoons were able to get past 11 of the 13 mechanisms.

More recently, scientists tasked a group of raccoons with the Aesop's Fable test. The classic story, which tells of a crow dropping stones into a pitcher to get its water level to rise, has been adapted by researchers as a standard for animal intelligence. Raccoons were placed in a room with a cylinder of water with marshmallows floating on the surface and stones scattered around it. To reach the sugary snacks, they first had to make the water higher by depositing the stones. After they were shown what to do, two out of eight raccoons copied the behavior, while a third took an unexpected approach to the problem and toppled the whole thing over.

10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”

Fish Tube: How the 'Salmon Cannon' Works and Why It's Important

PerfectStills/iStock via Getty Images
PerfectStills/iStock via Getty Images

If you’ve been on the internet at any point in the past week, you’ve certainly come across footage of wildlife conservationists stuffing salmon into a giant plastic tube and shuttling them over obstacles. It’s so bizarre—even by the already loose standards of the web—that it briefly ignited discussions over fish welfare, its purpose, and the seeming desire of people to be similarly transported through a pneumatic tunnel into a new life.

Naturally, the “salmon cannon” has a mission beyond amusing the internet. The system was created by Whooshh Innovations, a company that essentially adopted the same kind of transportation system featuring pressurized tubing that's used in banking. Initially, the system was intended to transport fruit over long distances without bruising. At some point, engineers figured they could do the same for fish.

The fish payload is secured at the entrance of the tube—acceptable species can weigh up to 34 pounds—and moves through a smooth, soft plastic tube that conforms to their body shape. Air pressure behind them keeps them moving. The fish are jettisoned between 16 and 26 feet per second to a new location, where they emerge relatively unscathed. Because there’s no need for a water column, the tubing can cover most terrain at virtually any height.

The tubing solution is a human answer to a human problem: dams. With fish largely confined to still bodies of water thanks to dams and facing obstacles swimming upstream to migrate and spawn, fish need some kind of assistance. In the past, “fish ladders” have helped fish move upstream by providing ascending steps they can flop on, but not all fish can navigate such terrain. Another system, trapping and hauling fish like cargo, results in disoriented fish who can even forget how to swim. The Whooshh system, which has been in used in Washington state for at least five years, allows for expedient fish export with an injury rate as little as 3 percent, although study results have varied.

The video features manual insertion of the fish. In the wild, Whooshh counts on fish making semi-voluntary entries into the tubing. Once they swim into an enclosure, they’re curious enough about the tube to go inside.

If all goes well, the system could help salmon be reintroduced to the Upper Columbia River in Washington, where the population has been depleted by dams. Testing of the device there is awaiting approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

[h/t Popular Mechanics]

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