10 Clever Facts About Raccoons

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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.

Do Dogs Understand What You’re Telling Them? Scientists Are Scanning Their Brains to Find Out

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iStock/kozorog

We all know that dogs can learn to respond to human words, but it’s not always clear what’s happening in a dog’s brain when they hear and recognize words like “cookie” and “fetch.” Do they have to rely on other clues, like gestures, to figure out what we mean by that word? Do they picture a dog biscuit when you say “cookie,” or just the sensation of eating? In a new study, scientists from Emory University and the New College of Florida tried to get to the bottom of this question by training dogs to associate certain objects with words like “blue” and “duck,” then using fMRI brain scanners to see what was happening in the dogs’ heads when they heard that word.

The study, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, examined the brains of 12 different dogs of various breeds (you can see them below) that had been trained to associate two different objects with random words like “duck,” “blue,” and “beach ball.” Those two objects, which were different for each dog, were brought by the dogs’ owners from home or chosen from a selection of dog toys the researchers compiled. One object had to be soft, like a stuffed animal, and the other one had to be something hard, like a rubber toy or squeaky toy, to make sure the dogs could clearly distinguish between the two. The dogs were trained for several months to associate these objects with their specific assigned words and to fetch them on command.

Then, they went into the fMRI machine, where they had been trained to sit quietly during scanning. The researchers had the dogs lie in the machine while their owners stood in front of them, saying the designated name for the toys and showing them the objects. To see how the dogs responded to unknown words, they also held up new objects, like a hat, and referred to them by gibberish words.

Dogs in a science lab with toys
Prichard et al., Frontiers in Neuroscience (2018]

The results suggest that dogs can, in fact, discriminate between words they know and novel words. While not all the dogs showed the same neural response, they showed activation in different regions of their brains when hearing the familiar word versus the novel one.

Some of the dogs showed evidence of a greater neural response in the parietotemporal cortex, an area of the dog brain believed to be similar to the human angular gyrus, the region of the brain that allows us to process the words we hear and read. Others showed more neural activity in other regions of the brain. These differences might be due to the fact that the study used dogs of different sizes and breeds, which could mean differences in their abilities.

The dogs did show a surprising trend in their brains’ response to new words. “We expected to see that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don’t,” lead author Ashley Prichard of Emory University said in a press release. “What's surprising is that the result is opposite to that of research on humans—people typically show greater neural activation for known words than novel words." This could be because the dogs were trying extra hard to understand what their owners were saying.

The results don’t prove that talking to your dog is the best way to get its attention, though—it just means that they may really know what's coming when you say, "Want a cookie?"

Scientists Find Fossil of 150-Million-Year-Old Flesh-Eating Fish—Plus a Few of Its Prey

M. Ebert and T. Nohl
M. Ebert and T. Nohl

A fossil of an unusual piranha-like fish from the Late Jurassic period has been unearthed by scientists in southern Germany, Australian news outlet the ABC reports. Even more remarkable than the fossil’s age—150 million years old—is the fact that the limestone deposit also contains some of the fish’s victims.

Fish with chunks missing from their fins were found near the predator fish, which has been named Piranhamesodon pinnatomus. Aside from the predator’s razor-sharp teeth, though, it doesn’t look like your usual flesh-eating fish. It belonged to an extinct order of bony fish that lived at the time of the dinosaurs, and until now, scientists didn’t realize there was a species of bony fish that tore into its prey in such a way. This makes it the first flesh-eating bony fish on record, long predating the piranha. 

“Fish as we know them, bony fishes, just did not bite flesh of other fishes at that time,” Dr. Martina Kölbl-Ebert, the paleontologist who found the fish with her husband, Martin Ebert, said in a statement. “Sharks have been able to bite out chunks of flesh, but throughout history bony fishes have either fed on invertebrates or largely swallowed their prey whole. Biting chunks of flesh or fins was something that came much later."

Kölbl-Ebert, the director of the Jura Museum in Eichstätt, Germany, says she was stunned to see the bony fish’s sharp teeth, comparing it to “finding a sheep with a snarl like a wolf.” This cunning disguise made the fish a fearful predator, and scientists believe the fish may have “exploited aggressive mimicry” to ambush unsuspecting fish.

The fossil was discovered in 2016 in southern Germany, but the find has only recently been described in the journal Current Biology. It was found at a quarry where other fossils, like those of the Archaeopteryx dinosaur, have been unearthed in the past.

[h/t the ABC]

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