Trivia 018: The Trash Panda

A common sight here in some parts of the Pacific Northwest is raccoons roaming around at night. They roam around, scavenging for food, sometimes getting into people’s trash. Native to almost all of North and Central America, they have also been introduced to parts of Europe and Japan. In some places, they are such a menace that trash bins have to be specially designed to thwart them (it doesn’t work).

Some raccoons at my friend’s house.

Their distinctive coloration and behavior has earned them the nickname “trash pandas” among denizens of the internet. However, they also have an older nickname – the “washing bear”. The scientific name for the species, Procyon Iotor actually means “before-dog washer”. And the word for raccoon in many countries around the world is some form of “washing bear”.

This name refers to the raccoon’s curious tendency to wash their food. Before eating their food, raccoons will often take their food to a water source, seemingly to wash it. Their motions seem very similar to a human cleaning off an apple before they eat it.There are many such videos of this online. (Particularly amusing are videos of raccoons given cotton candy being very confused when it dissolves in the water). However, most scientists agree that the raccoons are not actually cleaning their food. Most likely they are getting the food wet as a way to identify it. For humans, our primary sense is sight. However, raccoons do not have as good eyesight and rely more on their sense of touch. By getting their paws wet, they can help soften calluses slightly and feel the texture of objects more keenly. This helps them to determine what it is they are holding and whether or not it is safe to eat.

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