There are so many amazing facts about raccoons. Did you know that are more than 20 sub-species of raccoons and Florida has not one, but five varieties of them? Yes, you read that right. Here in the Sunshine State, we host the more common Florida Raccoon found mostly on the peninsula mainland. Their cousins, the Vaca Raccoon and the Torch Key Raccoon make their homes on the two Keys they are named after. There is also the Ten Thousand Islands Raccoon, which makes it home in a small part of the Everglades, appropriately called Raccoon Key. Finally, the Matecumbe Bay Raccoon found mainly near Key Largo. All sub-species have a similar appearance to the main species of North American Raccoon, Procyon lotor. There is a subtle difference between these subspecies, in color, size, and diet. Because of variations in size and coloration, scientists have divided these many types into sub-species. Most have been named for their geographic locations.
We are all familiar with raccoons. Whether our garbage has been rummaged, or they’ve taken up residence in our homes, these masked bandits are one of the most amazing of species. They are both intelligent and adaptable to their environment. Raccoons are native to woodland areas, but due to population explosion, they have made their way into our cities and suburban areas. They are omnivorous, with a diet consisting mainly of seeds, nuts, fruits, and smaller animals. Like opossums, they also help keep insect populations under control. However, they are opportunistic feeders, so their diet adapts to location. For instance, those living near water have been known to feed on crustaceans and mollusks. Near Florida beaches, raccoons threaten both sea turtle and bird populations as they like to feast on the eggs of these animals. Many a beachgoer may find sea turtle nesting sites barricaded off with wooden stakes and wire mesh, to keep people from walking on them and raccoons from foraging for the eggs. Because of this ability to adapt to available food sources, city-dwelling raccoons tend to raid garbage cans. This proclivity has earned them the nickname “trash panda.” Raccoons can vary dramatically in size, depending on their environment. While Key dwelling raccoons tend to be on the smaller size, typically weighing between 4-10 lbs, most varieties are within an 11-15lb range. Some of the larger types, such as the Texas raccoon, can weigh up to 57lbs! Because everything is bigger in Texas, right?
Living Among Raccoons
The North American Raccoon and all of the subspecies can be described as having grey and black fur with a pale brown underside. Their face is lighter with a distinct black mask across its eyes. The tail is banded with 7-12 alternating rings of black and brown fur. Their hind legs are longer than the front. They are nocturnal animals, though sightings can happen during the day. Many people believe that if you see a raccoon during the day, it means it is rabid. While raccoons can carry rabies, tuberculous, and distemper, seeing a raccoon during the day does not necessarily mean it is diseased. A raccoon out during the day is a symptom of rabies but not a diagnosis. Think of it like this…a headache is a symptom of a brain tumor but a headache does not mean you have a brain tumor. Often times, a raccoon out during the day is a hungry, nursing mother that is in need of more food to nourish her through her nursing. Other times, it may be a park where the raccoons have been conditioned to come out during the day to take treats from park goers. The best indicator of a rabid animal is one that appears to be agitated or aggressive. Others may appear wobbly like they are drunk. They can appear to be injured, while not showing any outward signs of an injury. Depending on the stage of rabidity, an animal could appear to be calm and unafraid of humans. Caution should be taken in either regard as wild animals that feel threatened can, and often do, bite. In Florida, about 65% of all reported rabies cases are linked to raccoons.
Raccoons generally make their homes in trees during the day, but can also make dens in attics, garages, or other sheltered areas, free from disturbance and hidden from prey animals. Raccoons typically have multiple dens within their territory, which can span up to one mile in perimeter. Homeowners can take precautions to prevent denning by raccoons and other wild animals by making necessary repairs to entrance points such as damaged sheds or gaps in the concrete. Placing a chimney cap is an inexpensive preventive measure that will restrict the ability of animals to den inside fireplaces.
If you have outside pets, try to bring them inside for feeding, preferentially only leave food out for short periods. Unattended pet food left outdoors is a significant attraction for raccoons.
Amazing Raccoon Characteristics
While raccoons are very dexterous, a common misconception is that they have opposable thumbs, like humans. They do not. Their paws are much more like a ferret or weasel, containing long fingers, contributing to their dexterousness, but lack the presence of a “thumb.” Their paws are also highly sensitive. The term “lotor,” part of their Latin scientific name, actually means “washer.” Some people commonly think that raccoons wash their food. This misconception is likely not the case. Raccoons are highly intelligent creatures. Scientists believe that about 75% of the area of their brains that are used to process sensory information is devoted to touch. Water merely acts as a magnifier allowing them to inspect the food with their paws to determine whether it is edible. This behavior is genetic as primitive raccoons mainly fed from rivers and lakes; these ancestors would have searched for frogs and crayfish under the water’s surface, and the trait likely continued. This sense of touch is rudimentary to learning, explaining why raccoons are such intelligent animals. Like humans, eating a variety of food helps nourish the brain, advancing development. Raccoons also have four to five times the number of cells in their paws (similar only to humans and primates), called mechanoreceptor cells, which are adapted to detect mechanical stimuli or touch information. All of this helps contribute to the raccoon’s adaptability to its environment.
Raccoons have mischievous reputations. This notoriety exists because they are natural problem solvers. Raccoons are naturally curious, and scientists believe that this curiosity is one of the contributing factors to the animal’s ability to flourish along with humans, despite being hunted for both food and fur. They know that where there are people, there is also easily accessible food. Why forage for food, when the humans have perfectly good food in garbage cans, in pet food bowls on the back porch, or in a camping cooler, where all they have to do is lift the lid and dinner’s ready?
Raccoons also have incredible memories. At the turn of the century, a psychologist and a doctoral candidate in psychology both published nearly identical studies about the processes of learning, association, and memory in raccoons. These studies, at the time, were brushed off as mere pet tricks. Still, only a few years later, in 1913, a series of delayed-reaction experiments were performed on dogs, rats, raccoons, and human children. In this study conducted by Walter S. Hunter, only the children and raccoons could remember the stimuli and correctly identify it after being distracted. Dogs and rats could only remember if they maintained bodily orientation toward the stimuli during the distraction period.
The Sunshine State Raccoon
As we previously mentioned, there are five varieties of the raccoon in Florida. First is the Florida Raccoon, Procyon lotor elucusis, which can be found from Southern Georgia through the mainland peninsula. It has also been introduced in the Bahamian Islands. The distinguishing mark of this subspecies is a rusty colored patch on the back of its neck. It also has fewer teeth than most raccoon subspecies. The face has a slightly humped appearance due to a larger sinus cavity. All Florida subspecies are smaller than typical raccoons. The surrounding habitat of each will determine its diet as raccoons are opportunistic feeders. Those located in cities will feed more on refuse and rodents, while those living near citrus farms will have a diet heavier in fruits claimed from orchards.
As you travel south, the various subspecies of raccoons in Florida decrease in size. The Ten Thousand Islands Racoon, Procyon lotor marinus, is found near Raccoon Key in the Everglades, it lives mainly in the root sections of mangroves. However, it abandons its den during high tides. This raccoon is typically lighter in coloration than its cousin, the Florida Racoon, and is also slightly smaller in body size, but still maintains the rusty colored patch on the back of the neck. Their diet consists mainly of crustaceans. Since they are a mammal, they do need a steady supply of fresh water, which they gather from the dew on the leaves of the mangrove trees in the early morning hours.
If you travel to the Keys, you can delight yourself with three different subspecies of raccoon. First, located south of Miami in the islands surrounding Key Largo, is the Matecumbe Raccoon, Procyon lotor inesperatus. This raccoon is recognized by its distinctly small facial mask, and grey fur. In the middle of the keys, north of Marathon, you’ll find the Vaca Raccoon, Procyon lotor auspicatus. This variety has very light grey fur and can often be seen traveling across the bridges to mate with its cousin, Procyon lotor incautus, or the Torch Key Raccoon found in and around Key West. Again, the further you head south in latitude, the smaller the raccoon subspecies get.
So does the panhandle of Florida not have any raccoons? No, this area of the state is more widely populated with the Alabama Raccoon populating much of the Southern United States from western Georgia to Arkansas and north to Kentucky. Also a raccoon small in stature, it can be identified by the yellowish hair on its back and reddish-brown coloring in the middle of its mask. This variety is the raccoon that is the object of traditional ‘coon hunts.
Now you can identify all our states’ various raccoon subspecies. Here is a good tip sheet from Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission on living with raccoons in Florida and what to do if you find yourself with a nuisance problem:
Of course, you can always call us here at Creepy Creatures to humanely resolve your nuisance pest problems.
A raccoon named Rebecca was kept as a presidential pet by Calvin Coolidge and his wife, Grace. Rebecca was initially intended as the Coolidge’s’ Thanksgiving dinner, but they became so smitten with her that she received a presidential pardon. Read more about Rebecca and her antics here:
Goldman, Edward Alphonso, Raccoons of North and Middle America, US Dept of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Services, 1950