Updated: Oct 19, 2021
With so many children isolating at home at the moment and parents wondering what to teach, we thought it might be fun for us animal keepers to share some information with you about our animals, our work, and the natural world; that you can pass on to your children! So we are starting today with one of our most popular animals, Raccoons.
Raccoons have some of the most dexterous hands in nature. They have small hand-like paws with five digits, much like our own hands! Native Americans were the first to note their unusual paws, and the English word 'raccoon' comes from a Native American word 'aroughcun', which means "Animal that scratches with its hands." The Aztecs also named them for their special paws, calling them 'mapachitli' or "One who takes everything in its hands." Today mapache means "raccoon" in Spanish.
Their front paws contain around four times more sensory receptors than their back paws - about the same ratio as your own hands and feet. This means that they are able to tell the difference between objects without actually seeing them, which is important when feeding at night. As they are nocturnal, this is when they are most active.
They can even heighten their sense of touch through something called dousing. To you, this can look like they are washing their food in water, but they are actually wetting their paws to stimulate the nerve endings. Like light to your eyes, water on their hands gives them more sensory information, meaning they can feel even more than they would if their hands were dry.
Raccoons don't have opposable thumbs like yours, but do have special rotating feet, and can turn their hind feet 180 degrees, which is very helpful when they are climbing up and down objects.
Research: What is a Nocturnal animal?
Research: What is an Opposable Thumb, and which animals have them?
Research: Raccoons have lots of different names in other countries and languages. How many different names can you find for them?
Raccoons are omnivores. Preferred plant-based foods include: tubers, seeds, berries, and nuts. They also like to eat insects, fish, eggs, small mammals, small birds, molluscs, and crustaceans.
Much like some of our own British wildlife such as foxes and badgers, wild raccoons in the USA are well known for rummaging through rubbish bins for leftovers, and have earned the name Trash Panda as a result! Unfortunately, many animals have become forced to live alongside humans in this way due to habitat destruction.
Thanks to the black markings across their eyes, raccoons have been typecast as bandits and thieves in stories for centuries, but their famous black masks do more than make them look like adorable outlaws - they also help them to see clearly. Remember that they are nocturnal, and so seeing well in the dark is very important to them! This dark colouring absorbs incoming light, reducing glare that would otherwise bounce into their eyes and make it harder to see.
Raccoons communicate with each other using over 200 different sounds and 12-15 different calls.
Think: Why do you think it is important that Raccoons can see in the dark?
Think: Now that you know what Raccoons like to eat, if you had to help us care for Fiona, what would you feed her?
Think: Habitat destruction is causing animals to lose their natural homes. What do you think us Humans can do to help them?
Raccoons are very intelligent animals, ranking above cats and just below monkeys on the mammal IQ scale. Monkeys are generally considered to score just below humans and great apes on IQ scales, which means that their intelligence is not as far behind yours as you might like to think!
Suggested Homework: At the sanctuary, we are currently putting this intelligence to good use and training Fiona so that she can help with her own care, such as learning to step on scales to be weighed for important health checks. We also give her lots of fun toys and puzzles such as toys with hidden treats so that she must use her "hands" and work out how to get to the tasty snack inside. Now that you've learned a little about Raccoons, can you think of some things that she might enjoy doing? Maybe you could design a new toy for her?
Phew, that was a lot of information to take in! Now it's time to get arty and have a bit of fun! Why not draw, paint, or make your own Raccoon at home. Get creative! and don't forget to take some photos and send them to us, we would love to see them.