Why Does A Raccoon Wash Its Food
Why raccoons wash their food before eating
- 1 Why raccoons wash their food before eating
- 2 Raccoon Eating Habits
- 3 Gripping Food
- 4 Why Do Raccoons Wash Their Food?
- 5 Why Do Raccoons Wash Their Food?
- 6 Raccoon Food-washing Habits: Making Mealtime a Tactile Experience
- 7 Raccoons and the Myth of Washing Food
- 8 Funny raccoon jokes
- 9 Facts About Raccoons
- 10 Habitat
- 11 Habits
- 12 Offspring
- 13 Classification/taxonomy
- 14 Conservation status
- 15 Other facts
Dispelling the myth that raccoons wash their food
The short answer for why raccoons wash their food is, they don’t. Surprised? I sure was! You, like me, have probably always heard about how raccoons like to wash off their meal before they dine. But after noticing that raccoons in captivity go through the same motions with their food regardless of whether or not there is water around, researchers questioned if this was actually a habit based on cleanliness. What they discovered is that the propensity for raccoons to dip food in water actually has little to do with washing it. Instead, it’s all about making their paws more sensitive to touch, so they can take in more information — such as shape and texture — about what they’re about to eat.
Raccoon Eating Habits
Here is how How Stuff Works explains it: «Raccoons actually have the same nerve grouping on the hairless parts of their forepaws as primates have, including humans, making them very sensitive to touch . In a study examining the slowly adapting nerves in the forepaws of 136 raccoons, researchers found that wetting the skin increases the nerve responsiveness. Think about what happens when you look through a pair of sunglasses and then quickly take them off. When you remove them, your optical nerve responsiveness will likely increase because more light is flooding into your retinas to illuminate what you’re looking at. Likewise, when raccoons perform their dunking ritual, the water on their paws could excite the nerves in their forepaws. That, in turn, gives them a more vivid tactile experience and provides precise information about what they’re about to eat. This is a beneficial trait since the raccoon’s vision isn’t its keenest sense.»
In watching raccoons feeding at the edge of a pond, you’ll notice they often look up while moving their forepaws around to search for food, tap-tap-tapping along until they find something that feels like lunch. They’re using their hands to see and find food, rather than their eyes. Rolling their catch around in their paws lets them know just what they’re about to eat. Same goes for when there is no water around at all. While the action looks like washing, it’s more about getting a good enough grip on their catch and figuring out the best way to get their meal into their mouth.
If you’re worried about this ruining your perception of raccoons as cute little bandits that steal food from trash bins and backyards then wash it before eating, don’t worry — they’re still cute little bandits that steal food from trash bins and backyards.
Why Do Raccoons Wash Their Food?
If the McDonald’s Hamburglar had a spirit animal, it would be the raccoon. This masked bandit of the animal world is notorious for its food thievery. Omnivorous raccoons eat plants and small animals, such as mice, and have adapted to living near humans. In the wild, they’ll dine on plants, nuts and fruits; in urban areas, they’ll sniff and steal food out of your garbage can, pilfer pet food and grab fish from backyard ponds. Have you ever taken the trash out at night, only to find it strewn across your yard the next morning? It could be the handiwork of nocturnal raccoons. In a study of corn crop plundering by wild animals, Purdue University researchers found that raccoons were responsible for 87 percent of the 73,000 damaged plants [source: MacGowan et al.].
What makes raccoons so good at snatching food? Check out their forepaws. Raccoons’ forepaws, each with five fingers, are surprisingly dexterous. They can easily grasp, hold and manipulate objects in their forepaws, similar to primates. While raccoons’ flexible forepaws help them with food procurement and tree climbing, the animals don’t display any sort of traits related to tool use like primates. Nevertheless, raccoons’ manual adroitness is so well-developed that scientists have conducted a surprising number of studies to determine how and why the trait exists.
One of the most puzzling things raccoons do with their nimble paws makes them seem like germophobes: Whenever they eat near a water source, apparently raccoons wash food by dunking it in water and rolling it around in their paws. In fact, their scientific name, Procyon lotor, literally means «washing bear.» Yet food-washing isn’t a natural habit among animals, which led researchers at the London Zoo in 1961 to look into whether these raccoons — known to carry rabies and roundworm — really are as sanitary as they act.
Why Do Raccoons Wash Their Food?
Raccoon Food-washing Habits: Making Mealtime a Tactile Experience
In the London study that first examined raccoon food-washing habits, the 10 animals «washed» meat more often than plants, but didn’t rinse off dirty earthworms [source: Lyall-Watson]. Even if no water was available, the captive raccoons would move their forepaws in the same way they would if they were actually dousing the food item. To the researchers, this behavior indicated that the raccoons weren’t intentionally cleaning their food before eating.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a useless gesture — removing dirt from their meals is merely a beneficial byproduct of the action. Initially, scientists conjectured that raccoons lacked saliva glands and needed to add moisture, making it easier for them to eat [source: Zeveloff]. Instead, study results have indicated that the behavior enhances the tactile experience involved with eating.
As we mentioned, raccoons have highly dexterous forepaws that resemble hands. Raccoons actually have the same nerve grouping on the hairless parts of their forepaws as primates have, including humans, making them very sensitive to touch. Like primates, they have similar slowly adapting nerves in those hairless, or glabrous, patches [source: Rasmusson and Turnbull]. Slowly adapting nerves are responsive for both moving and stationary skin displacement, communicating to the brain, via the central nervous system, information about the weight, size, texture and temperature of whatever’s come into contact with the forepaws. There are also nerves attached to underfur and longer guard hairs.
In a study examining the slowly adapting nerves in the forepaws of 136 raccoons, researchers found that wetting the skin increases the nerve responsiveness [source: Rasmusson and Turnbull]. Think about what happens when you look through a pair of sunglasses and then quickly take them off. When you remove them, your optical nerve responsiveness will likely increase because more light is flooding into your retinas to illuminate what you’re looking at. Likewise, when raccoons perform their dunking ritual, the water on their paws could excite the nerves in their forepaws. That, in turn, gives them a more vivid tactile experience and provides precise information about what they’re about to eat. This is a beneficial trait since the raccoon’s vision isn’t its keenest sense.
Swimming With the Sharks
Like primates, raccoons employ a combination of sight and touch to reach out and grasp an object (unless, of course, they’re reaching into murky water). However, raccoons often use both hands, rather than one, to grasp, and they exhibit little independent movement of their digits [source: Pubols, Pubols and Munger].
One interesting difference in tactile sense between raccoons and primates is the raccoon’s lack of papillary ridges. The ridges are microstructures in our skin that help us detect friction and create our fingerprints. In the hairless areas of human skin, namely our palms and soles, the ridges are packed with Meissner corpuscles. These individual living cells serve as specialized mechanoreceptors, responding to sensations like pressure or tension. With all of these factors combined, a study observing raccoons’ eating behavior concluded that while their dexterity is specialized, it isn’t as much of an anomaly as the washing behavior implied at first blush [source: Pubols, Pubols and Munger].
From a public relations standpoint, that probably isn’t such a good thing for the raccoon. Previously, the rabies-carrying, food-stealing animal had the distinction of at least washing its food. Now, it looks like those sticky fingers could use a thorough rinsing.
Last editorial update on Sep 17, 2018 04:00:35 pm.
Raccoons and the Myth of Washing Food
Raccoons are highly intelligent and curious creatures, and these qualities have helped raccoons thrive in both wild and urban habitats. This intelligence and curiosity combined with a pair of highly dexterous hands also means that raccoons cause a lot of mischief in their search for food, and often find ways into houses, campers and coolers. The occasional banditry aside, the hands of a raccoon are incredible appendages and shape how raccoons interact with the world. The hands of a raccoon have many times more touch receptors than their feet and a lot of the processing space in a raccoon brain is dedicated to their hands. They often to use their hands to “see” in situations like foraging underwater, feeling under overhangs, and moving in the dark.
The fact that raccoons use their hands as both tools and as one of their most important sense organs has led to the myth that raccoons wash their food. Raccoons in captivity have been observed “washing” their food, which is actually repeated dipping and rolling of food items in water. This behavior has led to a widespread belief that raccoons wash their food before eating or that they need to soften their food. This behavior is not really washing and food preparation but an outlet for a raccoon’s constant need to use their hand to sense the world and look for food. In the wild raccoons are constantly dabbling in water and searching in nooks and crannies, and in the captivity this behavior finds an outlet in food “washing”. Some biologists have described the behavior more as feeling than washing, and this description is supported by the fact that raccoons often rub and roll their food even in dry enclosures and rub their hands together even when they are not holding anything.
The food washing myth has persisted because in the wild raccoons are constantly foraging in water and rolling and handling their prey, which often looks like they are washing their food. Raccoons do not have a very good grip because of the lack of opposable thumbs, and so they often hold items with two hands and frequently roll objects between their hands. If this behavior happens near water it also looks like washing.
The truth is that raccoons in the wild do not really wash their food in any way that we as humans think of washing. They constantly forage in the water and will often roll food items in their hands, but they are actually looking for food and working to get it into their mouth with much less concern about how clean it may be.
To learn more about raccoons see:
Elbroch, Mark and Kurt Rinehart. Behavior of North American Mammals. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2011. 374 pgs.
Lotze, J.-H. and S. Anderson. 1979. Procyon lotor. Mammalian Species 119:1-8.
Funny raccoon jokes
I decided to make some jokes about raccoons because I like raccoons and they’re funny animals. So I sat down and wrote a blog post about them, putting a lot of thought into each joke and explaining why some of the more complicated jokes are funny, just in case you don’t get them. Here they are:
Q: Why did the raccoon cross the street?
A: To get to Fred Meyers to buy some dish detergent. (Because raccoons like to wash their food. Although, it’s actually a myth that they’re washing it; they’re really just softening it to make it easier to eat).
Q: Why did the raccoon buy Sensodyne toothpaste?
A: Because apparently raccoons have really sensitive teeth.
Q: What’s a raccoon’s favorite color?
A: Raccoons are colorblind.
Q: How big does an average adult raccoon weigh?
A: 8-20 pounds
A raccoon walks into a bar. Bar tender says, “Don’t shoot I’ll give you the money!” (This is funny because raccoons have bandit masks across their eyes, which make them look like robbers. And the bar tender thought the raccoon was going to rob him. But really the raccoon just wanted to order a drink).
One time I fed a raccoon a bunch of hot dogs.
Q: How many limbs does a raccoon have?
A: Between zero and four. But usually four.
Q: Why did the raccoon remember the Alamos?
A: Because Davy Crocket had a coon skin hat.
Raccoons are omnivores and subside on both meat, plant-based food, and redundancy.
Q: Why don’t raccoons brush their teeth?
A: Because it would look like they had rabies. (This is funny because people often associate rabies with raccoons, possibly because both words start with the letter R).
Q: How many rabid raccoons does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Two. One to screw in the light bulb and one to *also screw in the light bulb.*
*edited for content
And there you have it: what I did this morning instead of going on a bike ride. Now it’s mid afternoon.
Here’s a picture of a raccoon so you have something to look at while you laugh at all my great raccoon jokes.
Facts About Raccoons
Raccoons are round, fuzzy creatures with bushy tails and a black mask of fur that covers their eye area. These animals may look like cute, cuddly bandits, but they can be quite fearsome when approached.
Raccoons are about as big as small dogs. They grow to about 23 to 37 inches (60 to 95 centimeters) and weigh 4 to 23 lbs. (1.8 to 10.4 kilograms), according to National Geographic.
Raccoons are found in North and Central America, Europe and Japan. They are very adaptable, so they live in a wide range of climates and habitats. They typically make homes, called dens, in trees or caves, though they will also make homes in barns, abandoned vehicles and other man-made locations, according to New Hampshire Public Television.
Though raccoons are more than happy to make human areas their homes, they can be vicious when approached by humans. Humans should be particuarlly cautious of approaching raccoons because they are common carriers of rabies, roundworms and leptospirosis, according to The Human Society. Most experts do not recommend having a raccoon as a pet.
Raccoons are not very social creatures. They are nocturnal and sleep during the day. During the winter, they tend to sleep more, but they do not hibernate in the traditional sense. They simply sleep while their bodies live off stored fat. They lose around 50 percent of their body weight during the winter, according to the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web(ADW).
Though these animals look like the outlaws of the outdoors, raccoons are very clean creatures. They are known to wash their food in streams and even dig latrines in areas they frequent regularly.
As omnivores, raccoons eat vegetation and meat. The vegetation in their diet consists of cherries, apples, acorns, persimmons, berries, peaches, citrus fruits, plums, wild grapes, figs, watermelons, beech nuts, corn and walnuts. When it comes to meat, raccoons consume more invertebrates than vertebrates, according to the ADW. Some of the raccoon’s favorite animal treats are frogs, fish, crayfish, insects, rodents and bird eggs. When food is scarce, raccoons aren’t above scavenging human trash or eating roadkill.
Raccoons are more than happy to make human areas their homes. (Image credit: K. Schneider)
Baby raccoons are called kits or cubs and are usually born in the early summer. Females have one to seven offspring after a gestation period of 60 to 73 days. As a group, a mother and her baby raccoons are called a nursery.
For the first two months of their lives, babies live in their den and are weened at 7 to 16 weeks. At 12 weeks, they will start to roam away from their mothers for whole nights at a time, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. They become completely independent at 8 to 12 months of age. Raccoons live around 2 to 3 years in the wild.
Here is the taxonomy of the raccoon, according to Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS).
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Subkingdom: Bilateria
- Infrakingdom: Deuterostomia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Subphylum: Vertebrata
- Infraphylum: Gnathostomata
- Superclass: Tetrapoda
- Class: Mammalia
- Subclass: Theria
- Infraclass: Eutheria
- Order: Carnivora
- Suborder: Caniformia
- Family: Procyonidae
- Genus: Procyon
- Species: Procyoncancrivorous (crab-eating raccoon), with four subspecies; Procyon lotor (common raccoon), with 22 subspecies; and Procyon pygmaeus (Cozumel raccoon or pygmy raccoon).
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the pygmy raccoon is critically endangered. The pygmy raccoon may have fewer than 250 mature individuals left in the wild, and the IUCN estimates that the total population size, including juveniles, is only 323 to 955. Other raccoon populations are not currently endangered.
Raccoons can run up to 15 mph (24 km/h) and can fall 35 to 40 feet (11 to 12 meters) without injury, according to the ADW.
Raccoons are considered one of the primary carriers of the rabies virus in the United States, though only one person has ever died from a raccoon to human transmission of the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One theory is that the black mask around a raccoon’s eyes helps deflect glare and helps with night vision, according to PBS Nature.
Raccoons have five toes on their front paws that act much like human hands.