The Lowcountry marshes, maritime forests and beaches are scenic attractions for locals and visitors alike.
However, for the plants and animals that call these environments home, every day is a struggle to stay fed, hydrated and out of danger. Few species are as well adapted to this task as the raccoon. Using their intelligence, senses, coloration and social structure, raccoons thrive in our semi-aquatic environment.
The earliest fossils believed to belong to the raccoon family were found in France and Germany. It is said that these tough little guys trekked across the Bering Straight to North America, where they flourished. They are now found in every part of North and South America, with the exception of the Rocky Mountains. Several Native American cultures have oral histories that mythologize the expressive faces and hands of the raccoon. The first person to describe the raccoon in written record was Christopher Columbus, upon discovering them in the New World.
Raccoons are uniquely equipped to flourish in a wide variety of environments, especially the Lowcountry.
They are one of the few species of omnivores—able to eat a wide variety of diets including plants, vertebrates and invertebrates. Raccoons have a heightened sense of hearing and are able to track earthworms under the ground and fish underwater. Their eyes are encircled with black fur, which act like sunglasses to protect them from harmful rays of the sun. Their hands are covered with whiskers on the hairy side and tiny horns on the fleshy side, both of which they use to identify objects. In fact, their tactile sense is so well developed that a full third of their cerebral cortex is specialized to the sense of touch, more than any other animal.
Raccoons are generally nocturnal, spending most of their time out and about at night. However, they have a generally poor sense of sight and are colorblind. Therefore their heightened tactile and olfactory senses are vital to their survival.
In addition to these specialized senses, raccoons have a highly developed intelligence, and they owe it to their mothers. At birth raccoons are deaf, blind and highly dependent on their moms to protect them from predators. As their bodies and senses develop, so does their intelligence. They learn from their mothers how to navigate their environment, use their senses, hunt and stay out of trouble.
Scientists have proven that raccoons can learn and retain information for up to three years, which is about how long they live in the wild. Once they leave their mothers care, most raccoons are either solitary or live in small groups of their own gender.
The greatest threat to the wily raccoon is the invisible viral invader.
Like all mammals, raccoons are susceptible to contracting rabies. While there are large numbers of infected animals in the United States, no one has ever died from contracting rabies from a raccoon. Far more of a threat to the raccoon is distemper, the main cause of natural death for the animals in the wild. In areas with high vehicular traffic and raccoon hunting, these factors account for about 90% of adult deaths.
More than a nuisance, the raccoon is a fascinating species particularly well developed to thrive in our local environment. Get outside this fall and learn more about all of our wild Lowcountry residents!
By Jesse Renew