The recent earthquake and nuclear powerplant disaster in Japan got me to thinking about the plight of some of the country’s little known wildlife.

The raccoon dog, Nyctereutes procyonoides, is a small species of canine, native to parts of eastern Asia. Known as tanuki in Japan, this wild canine has markings that closely resemble those of a raccoon and has also been known to display similar behaviors including the washing of food. Despite their similarities however, raccoon dogs are not actually closely related to the raccoons found in North America.

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Nyctereutes procyonoides

Tanuki

The raccoon dog is now found across Japan and throughout Europe where it has been introduced and appears to be thriving. Historically however, the raccoon dog’s natural range stretched through Japan and across eastern China where the raccoon dog is now extinct in many parts. Raccoon dogs are found inhabiting forests and woodland, that is close to water.

Raccoon dogs are unique canines as they are the only dog-like mammal that hibernates through the winter. Although raccoon dog hibernation is not true hibernation, it means that raccoon dogs are able to sleep through severe snowstorms when there is not enough food to allow them to survive. Raccoon dogs usually become more active again in February when the warmer, spring weather begins to return.

There are five different species of raccoon dog found across eastern Asia and in parts of Europe, all of which have been severely affected by deforestation of their native woodlands. Raccoon dogs are also known to have incredibly dexterous front paws which come in very handy when trying to catch slippery food in the water and when climbing trees.

Raccoon dogs are carnivorous animals meaning that they only hunt and eat other animals in order to survive. As raccoon dogs spend a great deal of time close to water, their diet is primarily made up from frogs and fish along with rodents, small birds, eggs and invertebrates such as insects and spiders.

The wolf is the main predator of the raccoon dog as packs of wolves are known to kill large numbers of raccoon dogs in the spring and summer months when they are also feeding their growing young. Foxes and wildcats are the other main predators of the raccoon dog along with humans who have hunted them for their meat and thick fur.

Raccoon dog pups are usually born when the summer begins in late April to early May. After a gestation period of up to 12 weeks, the female raccoon dog gives birth to a litter of between 5 and 16 raccoon dog pups which are blind when they are first born. Both raccoon dog parents help to raise their young until they are big enough to become independent and begin hunting for themselves.

Today, although raccoon dog populations are thriving in their introduced habitats in Europe, wild populations in the far east have been rapidly declining mainly due to over-hunting and habitat loss.

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