It’s a raccoon! It’s a dog! No, it’s a raccoon dog!
The raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides), also called tanuki, is a very strange little canine that sports a black bandit mask, a wonderfully fluffy coat, and short, stubby legs. It’s also freaking adorable! These pups are small members of the family Canidae that share many morphological features with foxes, as they are closely related. They get the name raccoon dog from the black, mask like markings, bushy tails, and brownish gray coat that looks a lot like raccoon fur. Their resemblance to raccoons is also reflected in their species name, procyonoides, which means raccoon-like. Raccoons belong to Procyonidae – a family including coatis, ringtails, kinkajous, and olingos, among others.
The raccoon dog is historically native to East Asia, but was introduced from the late 1920s into the ‘50s over much of Europe and European Russia for fur trapping. There are now established populations in more than 20 countries outside its endemic range. Though most of these populations are stable, the animals are widely killed for the fur trade and eaten in some countries such as Japan. Despite this, the IUCN lists them as “Least Concern”, as there is no major threat to the species’ survival as a whole.
Being the dogs that they are, tanukis are omnivorous and will eat anything they can find, much like domestic dogs. In many areas of their range, they come into contact with humans and dwell near urban areas. This gives them access to unlimited buffets of delicious garbage, just like a real raccoon! Though they can tolerate living in close proximity to humans, raccoon dogs prefer the wilderness. They can be found in forests with dense vegetation, mountainous regions, and even along the coast.
In day to day life, raccoon dogs tend to stay together and travel in pairs or small family groups. In the wild, tanukis are generally monogamous when it comes breeding time. Males and females will form a pair bond and stay together to raise their 5-7 puppies until they are ready to become independent. Raccoon dogs are altricial, meaning they are helpless when they are born. At birth, they have downy black fur and their eyes are closed. By 9 or 10 days, their eyes open and teeth can be seen on average at about 14 days. These dogs grow quickly and will reach sexual maturity by 10 months.
Like all dogs, raccoon dogs have an exceptional sense of smell. This super sense is used as a primary means of communication amongst a family or strangers. Groups of these animals will share communal “latrines” (because they are fancy) where they urinate and defecate. The scents associated with the leavings can reveal a lot about an individual dog, and this information is “read” by others like a Facebook status.
Vocal communication is also used, but, funnily enough, these dogs are the only member of their family that do not bark. Vocalizations consist of whines, mews, whimpers, and growls, which correspond to friendly, submissive, or aggressive behaviors.
So now that we’ve established how cute and awesome these creatures are, what does any of this have to do with Shigeru Miyamoto’s Super Mario Bros. franchise? I’ll tell you. The raccoon dog is actually the inspiration for the very useful Tanooki Suit that occurs in many Mario games. Although this suit is based on the Japanese mythology behind the small canid, it is often mistaken by people or mistranslated as a raccoon suit. This is not helped by the fact that the suit has a striped raccoon tail that is not shared by raccoon dogs. Japanese myths surrounding these dogs include their ability to use leaves to shapeshift and cause mischief. This is paralleled in the way that Mario can become Tanooki Mario by obtaining a Super Leaf, resulting in the ability to fly and transform into a statue to avoid or attack enemies.
Unfortunately, or fortunately (depends on how you look at it), real tanukis can’t fly or use leaves to transform themselves. Despite that, though, they’re pretty special pups that deserved to be acknowledged, if only for their cute little raccoon masks. It’s no wonder they’ve become such an icon in Japanese culture. Animals that have such striking visual resemblance to completely unrelated species always offer something to talk about.
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2. Kauhala, K and Saeki, M. “Nyctereutes procyonoides (Raccoon Dog).” Red List. International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 2008. Web. 3 September 2015. <http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/14925/0>.
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