12 Surprising Facts About Raccoon Dogs

ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images
ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images

Despite its name, a raccoon dog, a.k.a. Nyctereutes procyonoides, is neither a raccoon nor a dog, but it does belong to the canid family, which is a lineage that includes dogs, wolves, and foxes. Five subspecies of raccoon dogs exist, including a Japanese species called Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus, or tanuki. Here are some fascinating facts about the adorable omnivorous creatures that are found in forests, wetlands, farmlands, and urban areas.

1. ATLANTA IS HOME TO THE ONLY TANUKIS IN A U.S. ZOO.

Tanukis can be found all over Europe, Russia, China, Estonia, Japan, and Scandinavia, but not in North America. If you want to see one up close, you'll have to travel to Zoo Atlanta, which has been home to brothers Loki and Thor since they arrived from Italy in 2012. This summer, a litter of nine raccoon dogs made their debut at the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City, making the pups the first of their kind in Latin America.

2. THEY’RE UBIQUITOUS IN JAPANESE FOLKLORE.

Similar to the Maneki Neko cat, for centuries the Japanese have associated tanukis with magical folklore and luck. Referred to as "bake-danuk," these mythical tanukis are mischievous shapeshifters. One exaggerated feature is the tanuki’s giant scrotum, which represents good luck with money. In cartoons, paintings, and commercials, this part of the animal's anatomy is often illustrated as a pair of “money bags.” The enlarged testes represent good luck with money, more so than anything sexual. Tanuki totems are placed inside businesses to bring money.

3. SUPER MARIO BROS. 3 FEATURES A TANUKI.

If you remember the 1990 Nintendo game Super Mario Bros. 3 (which originated in Japan), Mario can put on a Tanooki Suit and transform into a raccoon-like animal that’s able to fly. It turns out that Mario is one of those magical raccoon dogs.

4. SWEDEN DOESN’T LIKE TANUKIS BECAUSE THEY’RE AN INVASIVE SPECIES.

Not everybody thinks raccoon dogs are worth having around. Sure, some of the animals carry tapeworms and rabies and have mange, and they like to murder birds and muskrats and destroy gardens and vineyards (similar to actual raccoons). These annoyances have caught the ire of usually neutral Sweden. The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency encourages people to hunt and kill the animal to reduce their population. Apparently, Denmark takes issue with the animals, too.

5. THEY CAN MAKE GOOD PETS.

Technically a raccoon dog is a wild animal—not domesticated—but a woman in England, June Lincoln, adopted a four-month-old one named Bandit, which turned out to be a perfect name for her wily pet. “He is a dog but his most close relative is a type of fox, so stealing is in his nature,” Lincoln told Daily Mail. "While he is generally well behaved, it has been impossible to teach him not to steal.” Bandit walks on a leash like a dog, and seems to get along with June’s two pet dogs.

6. RACCOON DOGS DATE BACK MILLIONS OF YEARS.

Scientists believe the n. donnezani is an ancestor of the raccoon dog because fossils were found in late Pliocene sites, in Italy, France, Hungary, and Romania. Excavated fossils indicate that a larger form named n. megamastoiodes appeared in Spain, France, and Hungary in early Pleistocene.  According to fossil deposits found in Tochigi Prefecture in Japan, the Japanese dog first appeared during the Pleistocene era (between 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago), and the n. viverrinus nipponicus appeared mid-Pleistocene.

7. THEY ARE BRUTALLY SLAUGHTERED FOR THEIR PELTS, AND SOLD AS “FAUX FUR”.

Unfortunately, the animals are inhumanely bred for their fur, which is used in fur coats and calligraphy brushes. According to PETA, “China supplies more than half of the finished fur garments imported for sale in the United States.” Britain, Hungary, and Sweden have outlawed fur farming, but the raccoon dog and other furry animals are bred at fur farms throughout China and Japan, and reports have shown the animals are sometimes skinned alive. (You can sign a petition to stop these heinous acts.)

The Humane Society petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to have them include raccoon dogs as part of the Dog and Cat Protection Act, but in 2014 the Commission ruled the animals should be labeled Asiatic raccoons, not dogs.

Also in 2014, Kohl’s came under fire for advertising faux fur on jackets that actually contained real raccoon dog fur. A similar thing happened in 2006 when Macy’s sold Sean John jackets made from raccoon dog fur. The lesson being that just because something’s marked “faux fur” doesn't necessarily mean it's not real animal fur.

8. THEY’RE THE ONLY CANID THAT HIBERNATES IN WINTER.

Between November and April every year, the animals take a long nap, but they don’t sleep too deeply. If they didn’t store enough fat pre-hibernation and if an unseasonably warm day occurs, they may wake up and forage for food. Before they hibernate, though, their body mass increases by 50 percent so they can store the fat. In the southern hemispheres, the animals don’t hibernate as frequently. (Now imagine a pair of raccoon dogs curled up and snoozing together.)

9. THE JAPANESE CITY OF KŌKA SHOWCASES TANUKI STATUES.

In 2004, Kōka absorbed the city of Shigaraki, which in the 12th century was one of Japan’s six kiln cities. Today, Tanuki statues abound all over town, including in front of bars, parks, and street corners.  Over 60 years ago an emperor visited the town, so the townspeople spruced up the city by creating these statues as a sort of welcome. The tradition stuck, and the more modern Shigaraki ware tanuki statues are still on display: a rotund animal wearing a straw hat, holding a sake flask, and propped up by its giant testicles.

10. RACCOON DOGS DO NOT BARK.

Instead of barking like a dog, raccoon dogs give off a high-pitched whine or whimper, which can be interpreted as either submissive or friendly behavior. But when the animals feel threatened, they growl at each other. Unlike dogs, they don’t wag their tails, but they do use their olfactory senses to sniff for food.

11. MALE RACCOON DOGS SUPPORT THE FEMALES.

Raccoon dogs are stronger in pairs, so they band together to raise their young. The male forages for food and brings his findings to his pregnant mate. Once the pups are born, the male helps the female raise them. The pups get weaned after 40 days, and they’re able to take care of themselves around the four-month mark.

12. A RARE WHITE TANUKI WAS RECENTLY DISCOVERED.

In 2013, an all-white tanuki with blue eyes was found on a farm in Japan, caught in a trap intended for another animal. Because it’s white, the Japanese think it's good luck. A wildlife instructor thought the tanuki’s snow white coat was inherited and not caused by albinism.

What's the Difference Between Pigeons and Doves?

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iStock

To the layman, the difference between pigeons and doves has something to with color, maybe. Or location. Or general appeal (doves usually get much better press than pigeons do). But what’s the actual, scientific difference between doves and pigeons?

As it turns out, there isn’t one. Paul Sweet, the collection manager for the department of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, says the difference is more linguistic than taxonomic.

“The word dove is a word that came into English from the more Nordic languages, whereas pigeon came into English from French,” Sweet tells Mental Floss.

Both dove and pigeon refer to the 308 species of birds from the Columbidae family, Sweet says. There’s no difference between a pigeon and a dove in scientific nomenclature, but colloquial English tends to categorize them by size. Something called a dove is generally smaller than something called a pigeon, but that’s not always the case. A common pigeon, for example, is called both a rock dove and a rock pigeon.

“People just have their own classification for what makes them different,” Sweet says. “So in the Pacific, for example, the big ones might get called pigeons and the smaller ones might be called doves, but they’re actually more closely related to each other than they are to other things in, say, South America, that are called pigeons and doves.”

The difference boils down to linguistic traditions, so feel free to tell people you’re releasing pigeons at your wedding or that you’re feeding doves in the park. Scientifically speaking, you’ll be correct either way.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

8 Hair-Raising Facts About Black Cats

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iStock

No member of catkind is more maligned than the black cat. At best, they're bemoaned as lackluster photography subjects; at worst, they're seen as harbingers of really bad luck. But there's a lot to love about these furballs, as evidenced by the holidays in their honor—the ASPCA celebrates Black Cat Appreciation Day annually on August 17 and, across the pond, October 27 is National Black Cat Day—and the facts below.

1. IN SOME CULTURES, BLACK CATS ARE GOOD LUCK.

A black kitten stretching
iStock

They may have a less-than-stellar reputation in some areas of the world, but there are plenty of places where black cats aren’t bad luck at all. If you’re a single woman in Japan, owning a black cat is said to increase your number of suitors; if you’re in Germany and one crosses your path from right to left, good things are on the horizon.

2. THEY'RE A SAILOR'S BEST FRIEND.

Not only were cats welcome aboard British vessels to hunt mice, but sailors generally thought a black cat in particular would bring good luck and ensure a safe return home. A few of these kitties have been enshrined in maritime history, like Tiddles, who traveled more than 30,000 miles during his time with the Royal Navy. (His favorite pastime was playing with the capstan’s bell-rope.)

3. THERE IS NO ONE BLACK CAT BREED.

The Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) recognizes 22 different breeds that can have solid black coats—including the Norwegian Forest Cat, Japanese Bobtail, and Scottish Fold—but the Bombay breed is what most people picture: a copper-eyed, all-black shorthair. The resemblance to a "black panther" (more on those animals in a bit) is no coincidence. In the 1950s, a woman named Nikki Horner was so enamored with how panthers looked that she bred what we now refer to as the Bombay.

4. BLACK CATS ARE AS EASILY ADOPTED AS CATS OF OTHER COLORS.

Black cat facts.
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It’s common to think that black cats in shelters are the last in line to find their forever homes, but a recent survey from the ASPCA suggests otherwise. Although euthanasia numbers for black cats were some of the highest, their total number of adoptions was the highest of any hue as well. The vet who conducted the study argues that there may just simply be more black cats than other colors.

5. THEIR COATS CAN "RUST."

A black cat’s color all boils down to a genetic quirk. There are three variants of the black fur gene (solid black, brown, and cinnamon), and the hue works in conjunction with the pattern. If a cat has a solid black hue, but also the dominant tabby stripe gene, heavy exposure to the sun can make the eumelanin pigment in its fur break down to reveal its once-invisible stripes (another potential cause: nutritional deficiency). What was once a black cat is now a rusty brown cat.

6. THE GENE THAT CAUSES BLACK FUR MIGHT MAKE THESE FELINES RESISTANT TO DISEASE.

Even though their coloring is what gives them a bad reputation, these felines may be getting the last laugh after all. The mutation that causes a cat’s fur to be black is in the same genetic family as genes known to give humans resistance to diseases like HIV. Some scientists think the color of these cats may have less to do with camouflage and more to do with disease resistance. They’re hoping that as more cat genomes are mapped, we may get a step closer to curing HIV.

7. YOU CAN VISIT A CAT CAFE DEVOTED TO BLACK CATS.

Step through the doors of Nekobiyaka in Himeji, Japan and get ready for your wildest cat lady dreams to come true. Black cats are the stars of this café and visitors are invited to pet (but not pick up) these lithe felines. Each of Nekobiyaka’s identical-looking black cats wears a different colored bandana to resolve any catastrophic mix-ups.

8. THEY'RE DIFFICULT TO PHOTOGRAPH—BUT IT CAN BE DONE.

A black cat is photographed against a blue-gray background
iStock

The modern-day conundrum black cat owners face isn’t bad luck, but bad lighting. In a world filled with people sharing photos of their pets on Instagram, black cats can end up looking like a dark blob in photos. One photographer’s advice? Minimalist backgrounds, so your subject can stand out, and angling them towards natural light sources (but keep them out of bright sunlight!). If you're snapping pics on your iPhone, tap on your cat's face, then use the sun icon to brighten up the photo.

BONUS: BLACK PANTHERS HAVE SPOTS.

Technically, there is no such thing as a black panther—it’s a term used for any big black cat. What we call black panthers are in fact jaguars or leopards and yes, they have spots, too. Their hair shafts produce too much melanin thanks to a mutation in their agouti genes, which are responsible for distributing pigment in an animal’s fur. Look carefully and you can see a panther’s spots as the sunlight hits them in just the right way.

This article originally ran in 2016.

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