Raccoon Facts

Scientific Name: Procyon lotor

The raccoon has a masked face and a banded tail.
The raccoon has a masked face and a banded tail. MediaProduction / Getty Images

The raccoon (Procyon lotor) is a medium-sized mammal native to North America. It is easily recognized by its pointed masked face and banded furry tail. The species name "lotor" is neo-Latin for "washer," referring to the animals habit of foraging for underwater food and sometimes washing it before eating.

Fast Facts: Raccoon

  • Scientific Name: Procyon lotor
  • Common Names: Raccoon, coon
  • Basic Animal Group: Mammal
  • Size: 23 to 37 inches
  • Weight: 4 to 23 pounds
  • Lifespan: 2 to 3 years
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Habitat: North America
  • Population: Millions
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern


Description

A raccoon is characterized by the black mask of fur around its eyes, alternating light and dark rings on its bushy tail, and pointed face. Except for the mask and tail, its fur is grayish in color. Raccoons are able to stand on their hind legs and manipulate objects with their dexterous fore paws.

Males tend to be 15 to 20% heavier than females, but size and weight varies dramatically depending on habitat and time of year. An average raccoon is between 23 to 37 inches in length and weighs between 4 and 23 pounds. Raccoons weigh roughly twice as much in autumn compared to early spring because they store fat and conserve energy when temperatures are low and food is scarce.

Habitat and Distribution

Raccoons are native to North and Central America. They prefer wooded habitats near water, but have expanded to live in marshes, mountains, prairies, and urban areas. In the mid-20th century, raccoons were introduced into Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Japan, Belarus, and Azerbaijan.

Raccoon natural range (red) and introduced range (blue).
Raccoon natural range (red) and introduced range (blue). Roke, Creative Commons License

Diet

Raccoons are omnivores that feed on small invertebrates, nuts, fruit, fish, bird eggs, frogs, and snakes. They tend to avoid larger prey as long as their usual food source is available. Many raccoons are nocturnal, but it is not unusual for a healthy raccoon to seek food during the day, particularly near human habitation.

Behavior

While captive raccoons often douse their food in water before eating it, the behavior is less common in wild animals. Scientists hypothesize the dousing behavior stems from the species' foraging pattern, which typically involves an aquatic habitat.

Once thought to be solitary creatures, scientists now know raccoons engage in social behavior. While each raccoon lives within its home range, related females and unrelated males form social groups that often feed or rest together.

Raccoons are highly intelligent. They can open complex locks, remember symbols and problem solutions for years, distinguish between different quantities, and understand abstract principles. Neuroscientists find neuron density in raccoon brains comparable to that in primate brains.

Reproduction and Offspring

Raccoon females are fertile for three or four days between late January and mid-March, depending on the duration of daylight and other factors. Females often mate with multiple males. If the female loses her kits, she may become fertile in another 80 to 140 days, but most females only have one litter each year. Females seek a protected area to serve as a den for raising young. Males separate from females after mating and are not involved in raising young.

Gestation lasts from 54 to 70 days (usually 63 to 65 days), resulting in a litter of two to five kits or pups. Kits weigh between 2.1 and 2.6 ounces at birth. They have masked faces, but are born blind and deaf. Kits are weaned by 16 weeks of age and disperse to find new territories in autumn. Females are sexually mature in time for the next mating season, while males mature somewhat later and typically start breeding when they are two years old.

In the wild, raccoons typically only live between 1.8 and 3.1 years. Only about half of a litter survive the first year. In captivity, raccoons may live 20 years.

Baby raccoons resemble their parents.
Baby raccoons resemble their parents. Janette Asche / Getty Images

Conservation Status

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List categorizes the raccoon's conservation status as "least concern." The population is stable and increasing in some areas. The raccoon occurs in some protected areas, plus it has adapted to live in close proximity to humans. While raccoons have natural predators, most deaths are from hunting and traffic accidents.

Raccoons and Humans

Raccoons have a long history of interaction with humans. They are hunted for their fur and killed as pests. Raccoons may be tamed and kept as pets, although keeping them is prohibited in some locations. Pet raccoons are best kept in pens to minimize property destruction and are usually neutered to reduce aggressive behavior. Orphaned unweaned kits may be fed cow's milk. However, becoming accustomed to humans may make it difficult for them to adjust if the raccoons are later released into the wild.

Sources

  • Goldman, Edward A.; Jackson, Hartley H.T. Raccoons of North and Middle America. North American Fauna 60 Washington: U.S. Deptartment of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, 1950.
  • MacClintock, Dorcas. A Natural History of Raccoons. Caldwell, New Jersey: Blackburn Press, 1981. ISBN 978-1-930665-67-5.
  • Reid, F. A. A Field Guide to the Mammals of Central America and Southeast Mexico. Oxford University Press. p. 263, 2009. ISBN 0-19-534322-0
  • Timm, R.; Cuarón, A.D.; Reid, F.; Helgen, K.; González-Maya, J.F. "Procyon lotor". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2016: e.T41686A45216638. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-1.RLTS.T41686A45216638.en
  • Zeveloff, Samuel I. Raccoons: A Natural History Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2002. ISBN 978-1-58834-033-7