Sunday, March 16, 2014

tiny robbers with tiny hands

Since moving to Alaska, I’ve come to miss a lot of things that I used to take for granted. Being able to dress cute year round, ceiling fans, iced tea, and summer gardens that grow things other than winter vegetables, to name a few.

One surprising element from home that I miss: raccoons. Those little critters are cute. They are curious, have tiny hands with opposable thumbs, and sport little burglar masks. I miss seeing them.

Why do they have those markings that look like masks? It’s easy to understand why a butterfly might have a big eye on its wings- to deter predators by looking like one. Or why some owls’ feathers look like bark- to camouflage themselves while hunting and while being hunted. But a burglar mask? What good would that do a raccoon?

As usual, the answer is multifaceted. Some folks propose that the black masks helps to reduce glare while these animals are out and about looking for food. Some say that it helps to break up otherwise monochromatic fur to aid in camouflage. But my favorite explanation is the conspecific identification idea.

For a long time, biologists thought that raccoons were solitary- living on their own and not in social groups. But come to find out, related females often occupy territory together, and groups of males tend to stick together to fend against foreign interlopers looking for mating rights. So, they likely need some sort of identification system to keep track of who’s who in their social groups.

I know this mask makes me look good. (wikicommons)
It has been suggested that they use mask markings as a way of identifying each other. Sally the Raccoon might have a slightly broader mask than Nancy the Raccoon, who knows that Roger the Raccoon’s mask flares a little more on the left than it does on the right. Like humans come to recognize each other by facial and body features, raccoons likely use slight differences in masks to know one from the other.

It's neat to think that animals- not just humans- have evolved ways to display individuality as per the demand of social structure. Especially when it's as adorable as tiny robber masks.