Saturday, October 27, 2012

Bin masters: the raccoon family- adaptation to human landscapes 2

You’ve eaten dinner. There’s a noise outside. Someone or something is out there, possibly stalking you?

Most likely it is a raccoon rummaging through your trash, helping himself or herself to any number of tasty items from your previous day’s meals. If you live in the Neotropics (South and Central America), then it is probably a coatimundi, one of the raccoon’s tropical cousins.

raccoon trash collector coatimundi with mop on back deck
raccoons are enthusiastic trash collectors.
photo: LexnGer
coatimundi looking for trouble on our back deck,
Costa Rica

These masters of finding tossed-out goodies in your trash can, rubbish bin, or compost heap are members of the taxonomic family Procyonidae.

Raccoons, more than other members of the family, seem to be able to live almost anywhere, though they are more common in forested and wetter areas. They are so adaptable that in some areas (yours?) they become a nuisance to people, mainly when food - in the form of garbage, pet food, gardens, or even loose chickens – is freely available to them.

raccoon climbing a backyard tree Your best bet to avoid conflict with a raccoon (family) is to keep garbage tightly covered, keep pet food and water indoors at night, and keep your garden fenced and your chickens closed up for the night!

This eHow page gives specific tips for keeping raccoons (the “Houdini of the animal kingdom”) out of your yard and garden. The idea of playing talk-radio in the garden at night is particularly creative.

raccoon footprints.
image: Government of Nova Scotia
caught! backyard raccoon makes a getaway.
photo: Terry Ozon-Flickr

But of course there is more to the raccoon family than just raiding garbage and gardens!

Raccoons have some evocatively-named cousins: in addition to the coatimundis, the family includes kinkajous, olingos, ringtails, and cacomistles. While the more opportunistic raccoons and coatis thrive on our trash, these other species live mainly in tropical forests and are generally timid around people (though even some of these have become pets).

Have a peek at all the cousins, their biology, and their photos ---

Fun Procyonid biology:

Together with bears, some of which have also been known to frequent sites with large amounts of food waste, the Procyonids are carnivores-turned-omnivores. Although they are in the order “Carnivora”, together with well-known carnivores such as cats, and dogs, as well as bears, seals, skunks, and weasels, they have adopted a much more omnivorous (omni=all, vorare=devour) diet that includes fruits, nuts, frogs, eggs, and even carrion (animals that are already dead).

Over time, they have lost their specialized carnassial teeth, which work like scissors to cut through the tough meat of other animals, and they have developed crushing teeth to be able to eat seeds, insects, and other harder foods.

Procyonids are not bears, cats, civets, or monkeys, despite some of their common names, though they will typically climb trees when threatened, and several species can also rotate their hind feet 180 degrees to be able to climb down trees head first (don't try this at home).

coati group spread across a back deck in Costa Rica Except for coatis, which are mainly diurnal, procyonids are active at night, so they are less well known than the well-studied raccoon. Cacomistles, kinkajous, and olingos live in the forest canopy, so they depend on an intact forest to both survive and reproduce.

All spend at least some of their time in trees, and they travel most often alone though coatis can be seen in groups of up to 30.

Introducing the Procyonids:

raccoon being cute.
raccoon – has a black mask over its eyes that (perhaps appropriately) give it the look of a bandit.

Originally lived in forests and there it sleeps in hollow trees or ground burrows but now will willingly use human structures, such as abandoned buildings, barns, and even attics as a den. Eats nearly anything.

Links: Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, Bob Pickett on carnivores

big bruiser male coati ready for action
big male bruiser coati ready to defend his turf
coatimundi – is the only diurnal member of the family, and females and young coatis travel in groups, while males travel alone. Their long, pig-like nose is flexible and can be rotated up to 60 degrees in any direction (!!); they use it to sniff around on the forest floor to find ants, beetles, spiders, scorpions, and centipedes, but will readily raid a camp or garbage site. They are clever and can become loyal pets.
Links: Univ. of Michigan (white-nosed coati), Univ. of Michigan (South Amer. coati), Wikipedia

kinkajou climbing
photo: Rhett Butler /
kinkajou – is not a bear, though sometimes called a “honey bear”. It is also not a monkey, though it lives in trees in closed-canopy (intact) forests of Central and South America and has a prehensile tail that can grasp branches and help it climb.

The kinkajou eats mostly ripe fruit and uses its 5-inch retractable tongue (!!) to collect nectar as well.

Though seldom seen (they're out in the forest at night), you might hear them screeching or barking in the darkness.

Links: San Diego Zoo, Carnivore Preservation Trust, National Geographic

olingo descends a tree looking for nectar
olingo descends a tree looking for nectar
olingo – resemble kinkajous with their golden brown color, but they lack the kinkajou's prehensile tail and crazy long tongue.

They are another resident of the canopy in rainforests of southern Central and South America but avoid kinkajous, which are larger and will kick them out of a fruit tree.

Links: Univ. of Michigan, Pensacola State

cacomistle with bushy tail & pointy ears. photo: Joel Trout
cacomistle – is closely related to the ringtail but has pointy ears, a faded striped tail, and retractable claws like a cat.

Unlike the ringtail, it lives in the middle and upper levels of forests in Mexico and Central America and so is a great leaper and climber. This also means it depends on intact forests for survival.

Links: Pensacola State, Univ. of Michigan, Wikipedia

ringtail on rock
curious ringtail. photo: Robert Brody
ringtail – is not a cat. Unlike the other Procyonids, it inhabits rocky dry areas near water in the SW USA and Mexico -- it is the state animal of Arizona.

It is apparently easily tamed and was used by early pioneer settlers to rid their cabins of mice.

Links: Univ. of Michigan, Smithsonian Institution, Wikipedia

young coati at the back door
looking for love (in all the wrong places?):
a young coati at the back door

bushy-tailed olingo.
photo: Jeremy Gatten
baby kinkajou.
photo: Rhett Butler /
This opportunistic bunch benefits from a pretty cute exterior!
Does anyone out there have a pet Procyonid?