The raccoon is one of the most common and easily recognized mammals on the South Carolina coast. The two characteristic features of the raccoon are its brownish-black "face mask" and alternating black and white ringed tail. Raccoons have brownish to gray fur on the rest of the body. They measure 22-25 cm (9-10 in) tall at the shoulder, 70-100 cm (28-38 in) long, and weigh 3.6-21 kg (8 and 48 lbs), with males being substantially heavier than females.
Habitat and Biology
Raccoons inhabit most of the United States, including all of South Carolina, with population densities being higher along coastal areas than inland. In the ACE Basin, raccoons are found near wetlands, including tidal marshes, swamps, and bottomland hardwoods. They prefer mature woodlands and wetlands, which provide abundant food sources and shelter. Due to an omnivorous nature, raccoons have invaded most habitats including agricultural fields and urban areas, and are often considered to be pests. Field crops such as corn are a favored food, and turtle-nest depredation can be a severe problem on barrier islands.
Raccoons are monogamous and breed primarily in late winter (January and February) after their first or second year. Following a gestation period of approximately 2 months, females give birth in April or May to a litter of two to four pups in a hollow den tree. Female raccoons wean their young at 16 weeks and continue to care for them for approximately 9 months. By autumn, the family grouping of mother and cubs generally disperses. Females mature at 1 year and will leave to establish their own dens. Males, which mature after 2 years, may share a den with the mother until forced out in favor of a male suitor.
The average life expectancy of raccoons is about 3 years. In addition to disease, predation is an important population control. Predators such as bobcat and great horned owls take juvenile raccoons.
Raccoons are omnivorous and opportunistic feeders. Preferred foods include crayfish, crabs, shellfish, reptiles, eggs (both bird and reptilian), and vegetation such as fruits, nuts, and berries. The species name lotor, meaning "washer," comes from the raccoons habit of "washing its food." In reality, the raccoon feels for inedible matter in its food, and wetting its paws enhances its sense of touch. The common name "raccoon" is derived from the Algonquin Indian word "aroughcoune," meaning "he scratches with his hands." On South Carolina beaches, including those in the ACE Basin, raccoons prey on the eggs of threatened loggerhead sea turtles. Currently, wildlife managers live-trap raccoons and relocate them to help reduce loggerhead hatchling mortality due to predation.
Raccoon hunting and trapping are popular sports in South Carolina. The hunting season for this species extends from August 15 to May 14 with no limit on the take. Some sportsmen use dogs to hunt raccoons entirely for sport, while others harvest raccoons for their pelts. During the 1970s and 1980s, raccoons comprised 60% to 80% of the total commercial fur harvest in South Carolina. However, because of depressed fur values in the late 1980s, hunting pressure on raccoons declined and raccoon populations increased. Raccoon pelts from the Piedmont and upstate regions of South Carolina command a higher price than pelts from coastal raccoons because they are fuller and of a darker color.
Raccoons are not an endangered species; in fact, they occur abundantly throughout South Carolina. Raccoons have adjusted to pressures that humans exert on their habitat and have assumed a scavenging existence in many urban and suburban areas. Recent raccoon population growth has increased the threat of rabies from wild animals throughout the country.
Golley, F.B. 1966. South Carolina mammals. Charleston Museum, Charleston, SC.
Webster, W.D., J.F. Parnell, and W.C. Biggs. 1985. Mammals of the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC.
Whitaker, J.O. 1980. The Audubon Society field guide to North American mammals. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY.