One of the most recognizable and beloved creatures of the night is the raccoon. With their bandit-like masks, striped tails, and mischievous personalities, raccoons have captured the imagination of many. But beyond their striking appearance, these resourceful mammals have a very distinctive way of getting around – their gait.

As an expert in animal locomotion, I’ve studied the walking patterns of countless species. The raccoon’s ambling stride stands out as one of the more unusual and interesting examples in the animal kingdom. Let’s break down the components that make a raccoon’s walk so unique.

Plantigrade Locomotion

Like bears and humans, raccoons are plantigrade mammals, meaning they walk on the entire flat surface of their feet rather than up on their toes. This flat-footed gait allows their hind feet to pivot and rotate more freely, maximizing mobility and dexterity.

Raccoon dog

You’ll notice a raccoon’s hind feet seem to pivot outward at about a 60 degree angle with each step. This allows their ankle joints greater flexibility to bend side-to-side and rotate the feet as needed when climbing, digging, or reaching into tight spaces to forage.

The plantigrade stance, combined with this ankle articulation, gives raccoons more adept use of their front paws as well. Their front paws are extremely dexterous, able to grasp and manipulate objects with nearly primate-like skill thanks in part to the increased mobility afforded by their distinctive gait.

The Heel Walk

One of the most characteristic elements of a raccoon’s ambling locomotion is the “heel walk.” Raccoons are the only non-primate mammals that routinely walk flat-footed with their heels planted and toes splayed.

With each step, a raccoon will place its hind heel down first before rolling onto the flat foot. Then as the foot rolls forward through the step, the toes splayed out and the ankle rotates, allowing the foot to pivot and conform to whatever surface it’s walking on.

Raccoon dog

This heel-down, toe-splay motion creates that iconic tight-rope walking appearance as a raccoon’s feet seem to rotate outward almost 180 degrees between steps. It looks unstable, but it’s a remarkably sure-footed gait that provides excellent balance and grip while climbing, digging, or just ambling along.

Intermittent Bounding

While a raccoon’s walking pattern is its most distinctive form of locomotion, they are actually quite versatile in how they get around. When motivated to move more quickly, raccoons transition to an intermittent bounding gait.

This involves bounding from their hind feet by pushing off with both hind legs simultaneously. They then bring both front paws down together before gathering themselves to bound again with the hind legs.

Raccoon dog

The bounding allows raccoons to achieve moderate bursts of speed when needed while still allowing them to pause intermittently to sniff, look around, or manipulate objects with those dexterous front paws.

Despite their small stature, adult raccoons can actually maintain an intermittent bounding speed of around 15-20 mph for short distances when threatened or pursuing prey. Not blazing fast, but impressive for a relatively tiny 10-25 lb mammal.

Adaptations for Urban Life

Raccoon dog

In addition to their unique locomotion, raccoons have become incredibly well-adapted urban dwellers thanks in part to their resourceful gait and physical capabilities enabled by it.

Their plantigrade foot posture and rotating ankle flexibility allows them to easily climb, descent vertical surfaces, squeeze through tight spaces, and dig with relative ease compared to many other urban mammal species.

This allows raccoons to thrive and den in areas completely ill-suited for most wildlife – water drainage pipes, attics, chimneys, dumpsters, etc. Their heel walk and toe splay creates tremendous grip and balance for scaling surfaces and traversing precarious areas like power lines, roof peaks, or fence tops.

In short, a raccoon’s ambling stride may seem awkward and unsteady, but it’s an evolutionary masterclass in agility and adaptability. So the next time you catch a glimpse of these ubiquitous urban creatures waddling across a parking lot or bounding along a backyard fence, appreciate the distinctive gait that allows them to so successfully coexist with humans and thrive where most wildlife cannot.

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