Monday, November 8, 2010

Raccoon Fight

In the predawn hours of October 28, piercing shrieks and snarls of unknown origin had the Greenbrier State Park camp hosts trembling in their beds. At first light, the hosts were able to determine that the unholy din was made two Northern Raccoons (Procyon lotor). 

By late morning, the raccoons continued to feint and spar, churning the fallen autumn leaves. With their heads lowered, backs hunched and fur standing on end, they looked like dueling pincushions. Finally, the raccoon getting the worst of it raced to the top of a 30-foot-tall Tulip Poplar with the aggressor close behind.  Using their sharp claws and flexible toes, they seemed to scramble up the vertical tree trunk with no more effort or loss of speed than if they were running across a horizontal log.

Once aloft, the fleeing raccoon flattened himself against an outstretched limb of the tree. The aggressor made sporadic physical and vocal threats to keep the other in his place.  We bystanders could hear moans and whines, but we weren't sure which raccoon was making them.  The submissive raccoon was not visible except for his tail hanging over the side of the branch.  

The aggressor kept one eye on the humans looking up at him from below and the other on his opponent. He carefully assessed any vehicle that arrived, as different park personnel came to take a look at him. It was almost as if he wanted to make sure they weren't carrying a firearm. We considered rabies as an explanation for his behavior, but discarded that idea since he showed no signs of illness.  On the contrary he displayed vigor and alertness by his dominance of the other raccoon.

It was a great opportunity to observe the behavior of this usually shy nocturnal mammal. It was certainly confirmed that Raccoons are capable of a wide variety of vocalizations.  I also was impressed by the resemblance to the Red Pandas I've seen in the zoo--the full face, the mask, the ringed tail and ease in the arboreal environment.  Despite this fellow's ferocious manner, we couldn't restrain our "aw, cute" response, especially when viewing his classic 'bandit' face with binoculars.  His rocking, side-to-side gait as he paced the tree was also endearing. Raccoons, like bears and humans, walk flat on the soles of their feet.

Raccoons are territorial, and one would expect conflicts such as this one to occur primarily in breeding season in the spring. With winter and food scarcity imminent, likely the transgressor was a young male recently ejected from his family group, and having a particularly bad day since he wandered into an older male's established territory.

The raccoons finally settled down, and we don't know how the story ended. But no dead raccoon was found so it seems they worked it all out, raccoon-style.

The word Raccoon is an Anglicized version of a Algonquin word aroughcoune meaning "he scratches with his hands." The Latin nomenclature Procyon lotor , translated as "before-dog washer" refers to the early taxonomists' idea that the animal was related to the dog and to the raccoon's habit of appearing to wash its food. Scientists today place the raccoon in the family Procyonidae. Most species in this family live in tropical areas of the Western Hemisphere. Fossils show the first raccoon-like animal living about 25 million years ago in what is now Europe.  Raccoon ancestors are thought to have crossed from Asia to North America across the Bering Strait. Procyon lotor as a species is believed to have originated in Central America and moved northward.  
The Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens) is endemic to the Himalayan mountains. (This region is the only place in the world where the species is found living in the wild.) Like the Giant Panda, a distant relative, and unlike our Northern Raccoons who are highly omnivorous, Red Pandas eat only bamboo. Red Pandas were once classified in the same family as raccoons but now are placed in their own family Ailuridae. DNA research shows the Red Panda's closest relatives include raccoons, weasels, otters, badgers and skunks, all members of the superfamily Musteloidea.
(Red Panda Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Greenbrier: A Namesake

Greenbrier is the name of a Maryland State Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains, on the westward slope of South Mountain. The park is named for a vine that is plentiful in its woods.

The plant Greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) is a member of the Liliaceae family. It has heart-shaped leaves and tough, thorny stems that can form impenetrable thickets when many plants congregate together. Growing by itself, Greenbrier appears as a small shrub, but can use tendrils to climb trees or interweave with other shrubs. Greenbrier likes open woods, and is also commonly seen on the banks of streams, or where forests meet open areas. Trees typically sharing its habitat include Red and Silver Maples, White and Black Oaks, Eastern White Pine and Virginia Pine, American Beech, American Elm, Mockernut Hickory and Sweetgum. Also look for Sassafras, Wild Grape, Poison Ivy, Trumpet Creeper, Bracken Fern and Cinnamon Fern. Many of these plants are growing at Greenbrier State Park.

Greenbrier plays an important role in the woodland habitat. White-tailed deer and rabbits feed on the leaves and stems. (The new growth at the tips of the vine are tender and sweet. They make a refreshing nibble for humans as well. ) Greenbrier provides protection from predators for small creatures. You will often find a Gray Catbird nest in a prickly clump of Greenbrier.

Like many plants, Greenbrier has co-evolved with insects. In early summer, small clusters of green flowers waft a sickly sweet odor that mimics a decomposing carcass.   The scent lures Blue Bottle Flies who inadvertently assist the plant in pollination.

Later in the season, tiny blue berries provide food for Opossums, Raccoons, Wild Turkeys, Pileated Woodpeckers and many other types of birds.