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12 Surprising Facts About Raccoon Dogs

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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.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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