The most characteristic physical feature of the raccoon is the area of black fur around the eyes, which contrasts sharply with the surrounding white face coloring. This is reminiscent of a “bandit’s mask” and has thus enhanced the animal’s reputation for mischief. The slightly rounded ears are also bordered by white fur. Raccoons are assumed to recognize the facial expression and posture of other members of their species more quickly because of the conspicuous facial coloration and the alternating light and dark rings on the tail. The dark mask may also reduce glare and thus enhance night vision. On other parts of the body, the long and stiff guard hairs, which shed moisture, are usually colored in shades of gray and, to a lesser extent, brown. Raccoons with a very dark coat are more common in the German population because individuals with such coloring were among those initially released to the wild. The dense underfur, which accounts for almost 90% of the coat, insulates against cold weather and is composed of 2 to 3 cm (0.8 to 1.2 in) long hairs.
Zoologist Clinton Hart Merriam described raccoons as “clever beasts”, and that “in certain directions their cunning surpasses that of the fox.” The animal’s intelligence gave rise to the epiphet “sly coon”. Only a few studies have been undertaken to determine the mental abilities of raccoons, most of them based on the animal’s sense of touch. In a study by the ethologist H. B. Davis in 1908, raccoons were able to open 11 of 13 complex locks in fewer than 10 tries and had no problems repeating the action when the locks were rearranged or turned upside down. Davis concluded they understood the abstract principles of the locking mechanisms and their learning speed was equivalent to that of rhesus macaques. Studies in 1963, 1973, 1975 and 1992 concentrated on raccoon memory showed they can remember the solutions to tasks for up to three years. In a study by B. Pohl in 1992, raccoons were able to instantly differentiate between identical and different symbols three years after the short initial learning phase. Stanislas Dehaene reports in his book The Number Sense raccoons can distinguish boxes containing two or four grapes from those containing three.
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