Raccoon Cousins

You may have seen raccoons in your own backyard. But do you know what cacomistles (KAK uh mihs uhlz) are? How about coatis (koh AH teez) or kinkajous (KINK kuh jooz)?

One type of raccoon is the northern raccoon. It belongs to a family of animals called procyonids (proh SY uh nihdz). Cacomistles, coatis, and kinkajous are also in this family. So are ringtails and red pandas.

Raccoons and their relatives are carnivores (KAHR nuh vawrz), or meat eaters. Carnivores have large canine teeth and four or five toes on each foot. Cats, dogs, and bears are other examples of carnivores. Raccoons and their relatives are also mammals. Mammals are warm-blooded animals that have hair or fur on their bodies. And mammal mothers nurse their young using their own milk.

Are Ringtails Raccoons, Too?

Ringtails are not raccoons, but they are close relatives. Like raccoons, they have long, bushy tails. But ringtails have more rings on their tails than most raccoons do. Ringtails usually have 16 to 18 black-and-white rings on their tails.

Ringtails also have rings around their eyes. Their eyes are large and dark. They are outlined by black hairs that are, in turn, surrounded by large white rings of hair.

Ringtails live mostly on rocky plateaus that have at least a few trees and a source of water. These animals are very excellent climbers. They can climb up canyon walls and over rocky ledges. They can even climb up narrow crevices in rock formations. How can ringtails do this? They put all their feet on one wall and press their backs against the other wall.

How Is a Ringtail Like a Cat?

A ringtail is about the same size as a housecat. It walks like a cat, too. While it may look as if a cat’s whole foot touches the ground when it’s walking, the cat is really walking only on its toes. The ringtail walks on its toes, too. The ringtail is the only raccoon relative that walks this way. The North American ringtail also has claws that can be drawn partly back into its paws—just as a cat’s claws can be.

The grooming habits of a ringtail are also like those of a cat. Both animals lick their front paws. Then they use their damp paws to clean their ears, cheeks, and noses.

When it’s angry, a ringtail acts like a cat, too. It hisses and raises the fur on its tail, just as a cat does. A ringtail has so much in common with a cat, it’s easy to see why it’s sometimes called a ringtail cat.

Just What Is a Cacomistle?

A cacomistle is a close relative of the ringtail. But instead of living in rocky areas as the ringtail does, the cacomistle lives in dense, moist forests. The cacomistle is arboreal (ahr BAWR ee uhl). That means that it spends much of its time living up in trees.

Both the ringtail and cacomistle have long, thin bodies with long, bushy tails. But there are ways to tell these two raccoon relatives apart. For example, a cacomistle doesn’t walk on its toes as a ringtail does. Rather, a cacomistle walks on the soles of its feet as other raccoon family members do. Usually, a cacomistle is slightly larger than a ringtail, too.

Which Raccoon Relative Is a Real Stinker?

That’s easy—the olingo (AHL ihn goh) is a stinker. The olingo may seem like a skunk in this respect, but it is a raccoon relative. In fact, the olingo looks a lot like a kinkajou. Both animals live in trees in tropical rain forests, too. They are even sometimes found living near one another. The easiest way to tell them apart is by their scents.

The olingo has a good reason to stink. It uses its smell to scare off its enemies. An olingo has a pair of scent glands near the base of its tail. When frightened or attacked, the olingo empties these glands. This releases a smell that is usually strong enough to make an enemy run away from the olingo as fast as it can.

The olingo has other good ways to protect itself, too. It can growl loudly, make shrill calls, and sound off with shrieking alarm sounds. It is also an excellent climber and jumper. It can quickly travel through tree branches to escape an attack.

Where Do Red Pandas Fit In?

Most scientists group red pandas with the raccoon family because these animals and raccoons have much in common. Like other raccoon relatives, red pandas have long, bushy tails and markings on the fur of their faces. And, like raccoons, they can hold objects with their front paws.

Red pandas may be raccoon relatives, but they live far away from the rest of this animal family! All other raccoon relatives live in North, Central, and South America, but red pandas live in Asia. They make their homes in bamboo forests high in the Himalaya (hihm uh LAY uh). There, they can find plenty of their favorite food—bamboo leaves.

Red pandas are also similar to giant pandas. Like red pandas, giant pandas live in Asia and eat bamboo. At one time, giant pandas were considered members of the raccoon family. Most scientists now classify giant pandas with bears. But some scientists believe red pandas and giant pandas should be classified together in their own group.

Does a Red Panda Have Thumbs?

A red panda does have thumbs. In fact, it has two thumbs on each forepaw. One thumb is a true thumb that is actually used like a finger. The other thumb is really a special bone on the wrist of each forepaw. This “false” thumb helps in climbing and grasping bamboo. This unusual bone is also found on the giant panda.

Bamboo is the red panda’s food of choice. The animal uses the extra thumb on each paw to hold onto the bamboo stems. The red panda enjoys other foods, too. It also feeds on fruits, berries, roots, lichens, insects, bird eggs, and small rodents.

The red panda is a good climber. It spends most of its day sleeping and resting on the branches of trees. It usually comes to the ground to search for food at dawn and dusk.

Do These Relatives Look a Lot Alike?

Raccoon relatives do look a lot alike. They are close in size and shape. Many have interesting markings on their faces. And, of course, they all have beautiful tails.

But just like any family, each member of this animal family stands out in its own way. Raccoons are known for their black masks and arched backs. The coati’s long nose is its special feature. The cacomistle has faint rings on its tail compared to the dark rings of its closest relative, the ringtail. The kinkajou is the only member of this family whose tail has no rings. The olingo looks as if it could be the kinkajou’s twin, except its tail has rings. And the red panda has ears outlined in white, a dark red coat, and the bushiest tail of all.

Are These Animals in Danger?

Many of these animals are in danger because they are losing their habitats. Cacomistles, olingos, and kinkajous all live in trees in forests. Red pandas depend on bamboo forests for their diet. If people continue to cut down these forests, these raccoon relatives will soon have nowhere left to live.

There is good news, though, for the red panda. The Chinese government has established preserves of bamboo-rich land to protect the red panda’s food source. More efforts like this are needed to ensure that the red panda and other raccoon relatives will be here for a long time to come.

While some raccoon relatives are in danger, others are thriving. Northern raccoons and other raccoons adapt well to their surroundings. These animals can live almost anywhere. Because of this, they continue to have a large population.

Raccoon Relative Fun Facts

The name raccoon comes from the Native American Algonquin language and means “he scratches with his hands.”

Ringtails were once called “miners’ cats.” They were kept in mines to kill rodents.

Coatis are also known as hog-nosed coons because of their long snouts.

Red pandas are also known as wahs, lesser pandas, Himalayan raccoons, and red cat bears.

In cold weather, ringtails may wrap their tails around their bodies to stay warm.

Another name for a kinkajou is a “honey bear.” This raccoon relative extends its long, thin tongue to extract honey from beehives.

The common raccoon is Procyon lotor; the crab-eating, P. cancrivorus. Raccoons belong to the family Procyonidae.