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.

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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