Have you ever seen a raccoon scurrying around at night and noticed its distinctive ringed tail? Those black and grey bands are a raccoon’s most identifiable physical trait. But have you ever wondered why raccoons have those banded tails and what purpose they serve? Read on to learn all about the raccoon’s fascinating tail and why it’s important to this adorable masked mammal.
Why Do Raccoons Have Ringed Tails?
A raccoon’s ringed tail is no accident—it serves a variety of crucial functions for the animal. Here are some of the main reasons why raccoons have stripes on their tails:
The main purpose of the raccoon’s striped tail is camouflage. As nocturnal animals, raccoons do most of their foraging and hunting at night. The black rings help the raccoon blend into the striped shadows and patterns of trees and vegetation, allowing it to hide from predators and sneak up on prey without being detected.
Another key function of the ringed tail has to do with temperature control. The tail is full of blood vessels that allow the raccoon to release heat quickly when it gets too hot. This helps regulate the raccoon’s temperature so it doesn’t overheat as it hunts and forages in the warmer months.
In addition to camouflage and temperature regulation, the raccoon’s tail is useful for fat storage. The base of the tail near the body has concentrated fat deposits under the skin. This provides an energy reserve for the raccoon to live off of in cold winter months when food is scarce.
The fat in the tail gets metabolized into energy. So when pickings are slim in winter, the raccoon can live off its fat tail! The rings help maximize the surface area for depositing those crucial fat stores.
Balance and Agility
Have you ever seen how gracefully a raccoon climbs, balances, and moves through trees? That’s where its striped tail comes in handy, too. The tail is a counterbalance when the raccoon climbs, allowing it to leap between branches and scale trees with stability.
The tail moves with the raccoon’s body to maintain balance as the animal reaches for food, escapes predators, or traverses treetops. Without its tail, the raccoon would be far less agile.
Why Are Raccoons Different Colours?
Geographic location is the most significant factor affecting a raccoon’s fur colour. Raccoons in the northern parts of their range, like Canada and the northern United States, tend to have darker grey, almost black fur. This likely developed as an adaptation to help them blend into their environment and keep warm in colder climates.
In contrast, like in the southern U.S. and Central America, raccoons found further south often have lighter grey or reddish-brown fur. Their warmer climate means they don’t need the extra warmth from a dark coat. The variation in fur colour helps them camouflage into their local habitat as well.
Geography Affects Raccoon Colours
As you can see, geography plays a major role in the different colours of raccoon fur. But why would their fur colours evolve to match their locations? It comes down to natural selection and adaptation.
Raccoons with fur colour that helped them survive and reproduce in their environment were more likely to pass on their genes to future generations. Over time, this led to localized adaptations, so raccoons in the far north tended to be blackish, while those in the south had lighter coats.
Their fur colour helps them blend into their surroundings and avoid predators. It also allows them to be more successful hunters themselves. So, the differences developed as beneficial adaptations to each area the raccoons lived in.
Age Can Cause Colour Variation
Another factor that can affect raccoon fur colour is age. Baby raccoons, called kits, are born with greyish-brown fur. As they mature, their fur will darken to the colour typical of their geographic area.
So, very young raccoons often appear lighter in colour at first, while older adults are usually darker. The fur of an elderly raccoon may also start to take on a faded, greyish appearance again. So, age can be a factor in the variation of colour among individual raccoons.
Additional Causes of Colour Differences
Geography and age account for most of the colour variation in raccoons, but there are some other potential contributing factors too. Here are a few other ways genetics or environment can affect their fur colour:
- Genetic mutations – Occasionally, a genetic mutation may cause an unusual fur colour for the area. An albino raccoon with white or pale fur could occur this way.
- Diet – Access to different foods could influence fur colour over generations by affecting pigment levels. However, this impact would be minor.
- Moulting cycle – Raccoon fur tends to darken in winter as the undercoat grows in, so colour varies somewhat seasonally with their moulting cycle.
- Dirt/staining – Raccoons regularly climb and forage on the ground, so their fur can sometimes get stained by dirt, mud or food remains, temporarily altering its colour.
- Injury/illness – Damage to the skin or hair follicles and certain mineral deficiencies are possible but uncommon causes of discolouration in raccoons.
Rare Colour Morphs
While most raccoons follow the general regional colour patterns, in exceptional cases, unusual colour morphs can occur:
- Albino – All white fur due to total lack of pigment; extremely rare.
- Blonde – Creamy golden or reddish-blonde fur; more common than albinos but still unusual.
- Silver – Silvery-white fur mixing black and white hairs; uncommon but sometimes seen in southern areas.
So, if you spot a raccoon with truly unique fur colouring, it’s likely a result of a rare genetic trait rather than the typical reasons they vary in shades. But for most raccoons, it’s simply about camouflaging into their habitat.