Virtual Nature Trail

Scientific name: Procyon lotor
Common name: 

(Information in this species paper was compiled by Michael Hosack in Biology 220W, Spring 2000 at Penn State New Kensington)

The raccoon is a "small", bear-like animal with a highly arched back, flat feet, dense, soft brown and black fur, a long, bushy, light and dark "striped" tail, and a characteristic dark "mask" fur pattern on its face. Raccoons are typically from 2 to 3 feet long, 9 to 10 inches tall, and weigh between 10 and 30 pounds. Males are typically bigger than females, and individuals living in the north are typically larger than those who live in the south. The back feet of a raccoon are larger than the front feet. These stout rear feet bear most of the weight of the raccoon freeing up the more delicate front feet for climbing, digging and especially for exploring for and examining potential food sources. The dense sensory innervation of the front feet and the dexterity of the five front foot digits make them outstanding tools for exploring and evaluating the world.

The raccoon is a nocturnal animal and so relies on touch and scent as its primary sensory modalities. The raccoon's eye is rich in light sensitive (but color insensitive) rods and thus generates visual perception in the low light conditions of the night but with limited acuity or color perception.  The flat feet, highly arched back, and unequal front to back weight distribution of the raccoon cause them to be somewhat slow and clumsy as runners. The broad flat feet, though, do allow them to swim very rapidly and strongly.

Raccoons are found in a wide range of habitats but they especially favor forests, marshes, and meadows near ponds. They tend to avoid open terrain and need mature stands of trees especially for their nesting dens. Raccoons, though, are very adaptable to novel conditions and even to the presence of humans. They readily live in dumps, sewers, culverts, and even in the crawl spaces under buildings and mobile homes. Their nocturnal foraging habits, their ability to move about in furtive, secretive ways, and their wide range of food preferences allow them to readily co-exist with humans in both urban and suburban habitats. Raccoons typically live solitary lives within a loosely defined home range or territory. Groups of raccoons may form with females and their partially grown cubs or in winter resting dens. Raccoons rely on other animals to make their dens and will co-opt tree holes and ground burrows of a great variety of other species.

Raccoons will eat whatever food is available. They are consummate omnivores. When fruits, acorns, vegetables, or seeds are available, raccoons will consume them in large quantities. When small vertebrate and invertebrate prey items (like crayfish, insects, earthworms, frogs, fish, birds' eggs or rodents) are available then they, too, will be readily consumed. Crayfish are a particular favorite of the raccoon. This may help to explain the raccoon's preference for habitats near streams. The searching behaviors of a raccoon using its sensitive front paws to capture and evaluate food from a stream is often misidentified as a food washing behavior (in fact, the "lotor" of the raccoon's scientific name means "washing" in Latin). It is most precisely though, a reflection of the reliance the raccoon places on its tactile sensory systems during its nocturnal search for food.

Raccoons do not truly hibernate. They do enter a torpid, inactive state, though, when temperatures around them fall below 15 degrees Fahrenheit. They will sleep the winter away in their tree or subterranean dens relying on their accumulated fat stores (especially the fat in their tails!) for food. They may even over-winter in groups to conserve body heat. They can emerge on warm days to feed and drink but will return to their winter den to continue their seasonal torpor. A raccoon may lose up to 50% of its body weight over a long winter and runs a serious risk of damage and debilitation from dehydration.

In the climate region of the Penn State New Kensington Nature Trail, raccoons will typically mate during the expected warm spells of January though mid-March. Males will mate with several females and then leave the rearing and nurturing of the young to the female. A typical pregnancy lasts from 60 to 73 days and results in the birth of a litter of 3 or 4 young. The initial nesting den is most often a hollow tree hole. Once the cubs are a week or so old the mother will move them to a subterranean den. The ever increasing activity of the cubs and their tendency to explore out away from the nest makes the ground nest a location more conducive to their survival. After 8 weeks the young are weaned but may continue to nurse until they are 16 weeks old. At 10 or 11 weeks the mother takes the young out on her nocturnal forages using vocalizations called warblings to keep them close. The young over-winter with the mother and then in the spring strike off to establish their own home territories.

Life Span
In captivity, a raccoon can live from 10 to 12 years. In the wild, however, a life span of 2 to 3 years is more typical. Diseases, accidents, and the impacts of large predators (like great horned owls, hawks, eagles, bobcats, wolves, cougars etc) and human hunting and trapping are typical causes of death in a raccoon population. Many contagious diseases like canine distemper, encephalitis, and rabies affect raccoon populations and may even be transmitted from raccoons to other species (including humans).

The Pennsylvania State University 2002 
This page was last updated on July 05, 2003  

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