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.

The Poison-Detecting Secret Weapon of the Middle Ages: Unicorn Horn

A woodcut of a unicorn from 1551
A woodcut of a unicorn from 1551

In the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, Europeans knew that unicorns were real. After all, their horns were the treasured possessions of royalty, nobility, and even clergy. Charles VI of France had one, as did Lorenzo de Medici, and Danish rulers sat on a throne carved out of them. Queen Elizabeth I had a fully intact horn she used as a scepter; it was valued at 10,000 pounds—roughly the cost of a castle in her day. In fact, unicorn horns were considered so valuable the Elizabethan dramatist John Dekker wrote that one was "worth a city."

But unicorns horns weren't prized just for their beauty or rarity, or as tokens of extreme wealth. They were believed to be powerful defense against disease—and poison.

Fierce But Pure

Oil painting of a woman and unicorn by a follower of Timoteo Viti
Chastity, oil painting by a follower of Timoteo Viti

For an animal that never existed, the unicorn got around. The ancient myths of India and China mention unicorn-like animals, as did the tales Greek travelers brought back from India and other far-flung lands. The earliest Greek description is from the historian Ctesias, who wrote around 400 BCE of a large, agile animal with a white body, dark red head, and a long horn on its forehead. About a hundred years later, scholars translating the Old Testament interpreted a horned animal known in Hebrew as re'em as a unicorn (though modern translators prefer the term auroch, an extinct species of cattle). Writing in the first century CE, Pliny the Elder described the unicorn is "the fiercest animal, and it is said that it is impossible to capture one alive. It has the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single black horn three feet long in the middle of its forehead.”

From the beginning, accounts of the unicorn emphasized their healing and purifying properties. Ctesias wrote, "Those who drink out of these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, to convulsions or to the holy disease [epilepsy]. Indeed, they are immune even to poisons if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from these beakers." Similar accounts appeared for centuries: Around the 3rd century CE, the Greek intellectual Philostratus wrote that "the Indians make drinking-cups from this horn, which have such virtue that the man who drinks from one will for one whole day neither fall ill, nor feel pain if wounded, nor be burned by passing through fire, nor even be affected by poisons which he could not swallow at any other time without harm."

By the 12th century, a German nun known for her saintly visions, Hildegard of Bingen, recommended a paste of powdered unicorn liver and egg yolk as a cure for leprosy, although she conveniently noted that it could fail if the "leper in question happens to be one whom death is determined to have or else one whom God does not wish to be cured." Unicorn hide was also recommended in boots and belts, partly as prevention for that greatest scourge of the Middle Ages: plague.

Belief in the healing powers of the unicorn focused especially on its mysterious, twisting horn. The substance, often called alicorn, was associated with great purity as well as healing, sometimes with religious overtones (the purity of the white animal was thought to be connected to Jesus Christ, and the horn to his cross). Hunters in search of a unicorn were supposed to lure the animal with a female virgin, capturing the animal once it fell asleep in her lap.

A Common Deception

Narwhal tusk
A narwhal tusk

Of course, no such hunters were ever successful. Objects portrayed as being made from unicorn sometimes came from rhinoceroses or mammoth fossils but most often in Europe from narwhals, which were hunted by the Vikings in the North Atlantic. The Vikings harvested the narwhals’ spiraling tusks and sold them on to traders who either didn't know, or didn't care, about their true origins in the sea.

Once obtained, alicorn could be taken in many forms. Powdered, it was applied to dog bites and other wounds or consumed as treatment for plague, gout, and other diseases. The influential German physician Johann Schröder recommended it for childhood epilepsy. And although other physicians numbered among the earliest skeptics, apothecaries used unicorns widely in their potions. Eau de licorn—water purified by the introduction of unicorn’s horn or by being poured through a hollowed-out segment of horn—was also widely sold and reputed to have health benefits.

While the extraordinary cost of the intact horns made them showpieces for the rich, powdered unicorn horn was an affordable remedy for the average citizen. This was largely because other substances could be easily substituted: horse hoofs, fossils, and other types of horn. In fact, the widespread problem of fraud led to frequent tests of the authenticity of the horn itself, including presenting it to spiders and scorpions and observing to see if they avoided it or died. If they did, the item was thought to be genuine horn.

Poison-Proof

A page from a 17th-century French medical text discussing unicorns
A page from a 17th-century French medical text discussing unicorns

Poisoning was particularly feared during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance by the back-stabbing royalty and nobility keen to maintain their positions, not to mention their lives. Such an insidious crime required extraordinary measures: While European royalty kept other poison-detectors, including rubies, bezoar stones, and griffin claws, unicorn horn was a favored material for protection as well.

Whole unicorn horns were deployed on dining tables as poison detectors, while fragments of horn, called touches by the French, could be touched or dipped to plates of food to detect the presence of toxins. They could also be hung on chains or mounts of precious metal (actually less valuable materials, pound for pound, than the horn itself). French royalty had utensils made with alicorn, while other members of the European nobility had the horn inset into jewelry. The horn was expected to provide an alert to the presence of poison by changing color, sweating beads of moisture, or actually steaming. Alicorn might also be dipped into water or run over the actual linens and wall hangings in a banquet hall. Goblets fashioned from unicorn horn were also made across the continent; some believed these would shatter upon contact with a contaminated beverage.

While some medical writers, such as the famed French surgeon Ambroise Paré, were skeptical of the powers of the unicorn horn, many others believed in its merits. The Italian scholar and naturalist Andrea Bacci wrote a defense of the horn's use in 1573, telling the story of a man who consumed a poisoned cherry but was saved thanks to unicorn horn dissolved in wine. He also described an experiment in which two pigeons were fed arsenic, but the one who was given some scrapings of unicorn horn recovered and lived. The other died two hours after being fed the toxin [PDF].

But by the 17th century, the myth of the unicorn had begun to tarnish. European travelers to the Arctic brought back tales of the living narwhal, and further missions to other continents disproved the existence of unicorns by process of elimination, since no such animal was ever sighted. In July 1661, the men of the newly formed Royal Society put unicorn horn to the test: They placed a spider in a circle of powdered unicorn’s horn to see what would happen. From from being repelled by the horn, as writers had long claimed, the spider immediately scurried across the powder to escape. The men repeated the experiment several times, each with the same results. Their trial helped sound the death knell for credulous belief in the magical properties of unicorn horn.

The loss of value resulted in the disappearance or destruction of many precious specimens. Items once said to be made from unicorn horn are still in some museum collections, and very occasionally turn up for sale—still bearing their historical value, though no longer imbued with the mysterious properties that once made them worth a city or a castle.

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