Raccoons are one of the most distinctive and recognizable animals in North America, with their black masks, striped tails, and dexterous paws. These mischievous mammals have become frequent inhabitants of urban and suburban areas across the continent. Despite their ubiquity, many people don’t know much about the fascinating origins and evolutionary history of raccoons. Let’s take a closer look at where these clever creatures came from.

The Ancestral Raccoon Family

Modern raccoons belong to the procyonid family, which also includes coatis, ringtails, olingos, kinkajous, and other raccoon-like animals. The procyonids branched off from other carnivores around 25 million years ago, during the Oligocene epoch.

The earliest known ancestor of raccoons was the Paleogene Pseudobassaris, a small, raccoon-like animal that roamed ancient forests in what is now Europe around 35 million years ago. Over the next 20 million years, various early procyonids like Cyrtonotus spread across Europe and into Asia.

Raccoon dog

The Great American Frontier

It wasn’t until around 8 million years ago that the first true raccoons evolved in Germany and Spain from their procyonid ancestors. These early raccoons were smaller than modern species and lacked some distinctive raccoon features like the mask and striped tail.

Around 5.5 million years ago, an evolutionary branch of these European raccoons found their way across the Bering Land Bridge into North America, marking the first arrival of raccoons on the continent. They would diversify into several different prehistoric species over the following few million years.

Raccoon dog

During the Great American Interchange around 3 million years ago, raccoons crossed back over the newly formed Panamanian land bridge into South America. But shortly after, an evolutionary bottleneck wiped out all the South American raccoon species.

The Modern Raccoon Emerges

The modern raccoon species we know today, Procyon lotor, first appeared around 1.8 million years ago in the Middle Pliocene epoch. Initially centered in the central plains of what is now the United States and Mexico, these early Procyon lotor were larger than previous raccoon species, with more distinct masks and striped tails.

As the last ice age took hold around 800,000 years ago, raccoons were pushed down into separate populations centered in the central plains and along the southern coasts. When the glaciers receded around 18,000 years ago, the separate raccoon populations rejoined and spread out across most of the United States and parts of Canada.

Over the past 400 years, raccoons have greatly expanded their range due to deforestation and the presence of human settlements across North America providing new food sources. They have become one of the most ubiquitous wild mammals on the continent, thriving in cities and suburbs just as well as rural forests and farmland.

Origins of the Word “Raccoon”

The peculiar word “raccoon” is derived from the Powhatan word “aroughcun”, which roughly translates to “he scratches with his hands.” Early English settlers in the Virginia colony adopted this name for the animal around 1608.

Raccoon dog

Over time, the word became shortened and anglicized to “raccoon.” Other names used by various Native American tribes include “coon,” “crying animal,” and “night walker.” The German word “Waschbär” directly translates to “wash bear,” referring to their habit of “washing” food in water.

Raccoon Cousins Around the World

While raccoons are primarily found across North and Central America today, they have several cousins from the procyonid family living around the world, thanks to their ancestors’ ancient dispersal patterns:

Coatis, also called coatimundis, are raccoon relatives native to South America, Mexico, and the southern United States. The white-nosed coati is the most widespread species.

Ringtails, also called cacomistles, are raccoon-like mammals native to arid areas of the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Central America.

Raccoon dog

Olingos, or “raccoon bears,” are tree-dwelling relatives found in tropical forest regions of Central and South America.

Kinkajous, sometimes called “honey bears,” are another tree-dwelling procyonid species found in Central and South American rainforests.

What does the future hold for our raccoon friends? Once largely viewed as pests, raccoons are increasingly appreciated for their intelligence and adaptability. With their human-centric environments expanding, raccoons will surely continue finding new ways to thrive alongside us, just as their ancestors did millions of years ago. These clever, nomadic mammals have truly taken their evolutionary journey full circle.

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