Raccoons and the City
Enhanced Video Resource

This video segment from Nature: “Raccoon Nation” explores the migration of raccoons to cities and discusses traits that help them thrive in urban environments, including their flexible hands, small body size and omnivorous diet. The segment describes why raccoons are well suited for living in cities, as well as how raccoons have changed and possibly gotten smarter from living in urban settings. The segment discusses the dramatic increase in urban raccoon populations in the past 70 years, as well as the fact that raccoons have changed more in that time period than in the previous 40, 000 years.

Discussion Questions:

Before watching the video:

  • Large numbers of raccoons are now found in cities. What are some reasons you think raccoons survive well in cities?

After watching the video:

  • Describe traits, features and/or skills raccoons have which help them survive well in cities.
  • Explain how the number of raccoons in cities has changed over the past 70 years.
  • Describe some differences between country and city raccoon populations.
  • In the segment, it is stated that raccoons, as a species, are possibly becoming smarter as a result of moving into urban environments. Explain this statement.
  • Describe some similarities between humans and raccoons.
  • Discuss how raccoons, as a species, have changed as a result of living in cities.

Background Essay:

Raccoons originally lived in the tropics and foraged along riverbanks. They then migrated northward in North America, adapting to new territories and expanding their diet. Raccoons are very successful at adjusting to a variety of climates and environments. Raccoons now live as far north as Alaska and in many major cities, including Toronto, Chicago and New York.

Raccoons stay with their mothers for up to one year, during which time their mothers feed, teach and protect them. Scientists believe that animals which spend time with their mothers through their development are, generally, smarter than those that don’t. Raccoon moms teach their young how to survive in urban environments, including how to increase their pace in order to safely cross over a road. Cars are the number one cause of death for urban raccoons. Therefore, learning how to safely cross roads and/or avoid busy streets is an important survival skill. Until recently, scientists knew very little about how raccoons survive in cities. In a recent study, Canadian scientists Marc Dupuis-Desormeaux and Suzanne MacDonald discovered that raccoons in Toronto have a very small territory size and, on average, tend to live in a three-block radius. This indicates that urban raccoons are able to find shelter, food and water without going too far. The study also found that raccoons tend not to cross major highways.

Cities are relatively new environments for wild species and, in order to survive in urban settings, animals must be extremely flexible.  Raccoons are especially well-suited for cities because of their body sizes, sharp sense of smell, omnivorous diet and nimble hands, which can open up doors and containers. They can find food anywhere. Urban food sources, such as garbage and pet food, bring together different species that might not normally be in close contact, making it easier for diseases to spread from one species to another. Raccoons have transmitted diseases– such as raccoon round worm, trichinosis and rabies– to dogs, horses, humans and other species.

City raccoons live longer and have more offspring than raccoons in the country. City raccoons are thriving, and some overrun cities are trying to grapple with the damage they cause on homes and other property. Kassel, Germany has the largest raccoon population in Europe, with up to 100 raccoons per square kilometer. In Kassel, raccoons have caused a lot of property damage. Upon observing the raccoons, scientists discovered that 70% of the time, raccoons caused damage or entered homes by going up drain pipes. Scientists created drain pipe protectors to prevent raccoons from climbing up the pipes. Raccoons learned how to pass over the protectors, leading scientists to create new protectors that were harder for raccoons to navigate. Raccoons are always looking at how they can solve problems and overcome new challenges to reach specific goals/rewards. Even though something might initially be an obstacle for raccoons, they will often find a way to overcome the challenge.

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National Science Education Standards

Grades 5-8:
Content Standard C: Life Science
Fundamental concepts and principles that underlie this standard include:

  • Regulation and Behavior
    • All organisms must be able to obtain and use resources, grow, reproduce, and maintain stable internal conditions while living in a constantly changing external environment.
    • Regulation of an organism’s internal environment involves sensing the internal environment and changing physiological activities to keep conditions within the range required to survive.
    • Behavior is one kind of response an organism can make to an internal or environmental stimulus. A behavioral response requires coordination and communication at many levels, including cells, organ systems, and whole organisms. Behavioral response is a set of actions determined in part by heredity and in part from experience.
    • An organism’s behavior evolves through adaptation to its environment. How a species moves, obtains food, reproduces, and responds to danger are based in the species’ evolutionary history.
  • Diversity and Adaptations of Organisms
    • Biological evolution accounts for the diversity of species developed through gradual processes over many generations. Species acquire many of their unique characteristics through biological adaptation, which involves the selection of naturally occurring variations in populations. Biological adaptations include changes in structures, behaviors, or physiology that enhance survival and reproductive success in a particular environment.

Grades 9-12:
Content Standard C: Life Science
Fundamental concepts and principles that underlie this standard include:

  • Biological Evolution
    • Species evolve over time. Evolution is the consequence of the interactions of (1) the potential for a species to increase its numbers, (2) the genetic variability of offspring due to mutation and recombination of genes, (3) a finite supply of the resources required for life, and (4) the ensuring selection by the environment of those offspring better able to survive and leave offspring.
  • The Behavior of Organisms
    • Organisms have behavioral responses to internal changes and to external stimuli. Responses to external stimuli can result from interactions with the organism’s own species and others, as well as environmental changes; these responses either can be innate or learned. The broad patterns of behavior exhibited by animals have evolved to ensure reproductive success. Animals often live in unpredictable environments, and so their behavior must be flexible enough to deal with uncertainty and change. Plants also respond to stimuli.
    • Like other aspects of an organism’s biology, behaviors have evolved through natural selection. Behaviors often have an adaptive logic when viewed in terms of evolutionary principles.

Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
Fundamental concepts and principles that underlie this standard include:

  • Science and Technology in Local, National, and Global Challenges
    • Humans have a major effect on other species. For example, the influence of humans on other organisms occurs through land use—which decreases space available to other species—and pollution—which changes the chemical composition of air, soil, and water.

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