Whether you call them trash bandits or just ‘coons, most everyone in Iowa has met this prominent Midwest mammal. While they may have a rather unfavorable reputation in urban environments for ransacking trash cans, they’re one of the best urban-adapted animals in existence today and fill a necessary ecological niche around the world. See how well you know your local masked bandit with the trivia below!
Part of the reason raccoons are attracted to trash is that they can eat just about anything. As omnivores, they’ll look for fruit, eggs, vegetables, meats, nuts, bugs, or just about anything else they can get their paws on when they get the munchies. This can be a good thing, and it’s heavily tied into their ecological benefits. Raccoons help control other populations like those of various insects (including yellow jackets), snakes, mice, and more. And due to their nocturnal lifestyle and shyness, humans generally don’t even notice they’re around.
Wash Your Hands
One of the best-known but least understood raccoon behaviors is their habit of dunking potential food items in water, appearing to wash them. This behavior is so well noted, in fact, that assorted languages literally refer to raccoons as “washer bears,” “washer rats” or “the one who washes.” It’s thought that raccoons don’t dunk their food to wash it so much as to feel it and decide if it’s good for eating. While this is solely speculation, it’s logical that raccoon’s front feet would be calloused from walking and climbing trees, so getting these paws wet would make the raccoon’s skin more pliable, enhancing its sense of touch. This in turn would help the raccoon feel for things like rotten spots that it wouldn’t want to eat.
Next of Kin
Raccoons are somewhat difficult to classify because they look like a mix of a lot of things. Dog, bear and other lineages have been suggested as possible relatives over time, but none of these are a great fit, ecologically speaking. In simple terms, raccoons aren’t really substantially related to anything else in Iowa. Their closest living relatives are actually coatis, ringtails, kinkajous and olingos, most of which reside in Central America.
On Your Feet
Raccoons, like cats, have an amazing ability to land on their feet. In fact, it’s speculated that raccoons can survive falling out of trees so long as they don’t break a limb. They have even been documented walking off as much as a 40 meter drop (that’s more than 130 feet!) with no adverse effects. On a more regular basis, raccoons display uncommon abilities to climb while moving forward or backward, and they’re one of the few animals that can descend from a tree head-first. Even if there are no trees in sight, raccoons are good at escaping predators because they are strong swimmers and can run at speeds up to 15 miles per hour.
Capable of a wide variety of vocalizations, raccoons use sound as a primary communication channel between individuals. While their noises include hisses, chatters, grunts and squeaks, they are also capable of purring in a manner described as similar to that of a housecat.
Unlike their larger relatives, raccoons do not go into hibernation during the winter, so they have other strategies for surviving the lean months of the year. First off, their veritable summer munchies help them put on a layer of fat that can both keep them warm and be used as an energy source when temperatures drop. They also significantly reduce their nightly activity level to conserve as much of their energy as possible, and in urban areas may supplement their lacking diet with acceptable trash items or left-out pet food. Raccoons may also live in culverts, sewers, attics, sheds or garages to take advantage of the easy heat and shelter. Innocuously taking advantage of human infrastructure in this manner is a huge component of the raccoon species’ success in modern society, and explains why they tend to live closer to people than other wildlife.
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