Island Science

Raccoon on the Loose on Nantucket

-by Dr. Sarah D. Oktay, Director, University of Massachusetts Nantucket Field Station-

For the first time in many years, we have a new mammalian intruder who has managed to stowaway on a boat and make their way to the island. What would be a farcical children’s book story for the mainland has become a dogged search for an alien refugee here on Nantucket. What has us in such a kerfuffle? The Inquirer and Mirror broke the story in their June 12th online issue (accessed June 21 at ): “A raccoon who is believed to have stowed away on a fuel truck and made the trip to Nantucket on the freight boat today is loose on the island, police said.” The New England Cable News (NECN) website picked up the story, and before long an internet meme was born called @AckRaccoon displaying satirical Nantucket-Red clad raccoon Photoshopped sightings around the island. Apparently it is time to celebrate another wild and wooly summer on Nantucket.

This morning (June 21st/Father’s Day) via Facebook I heard from island landscape photographer Daniel Sutherland ( that the raccoon escapee had been raiding his birdseed cans at his home off Old South Road. Dan smartly videotaped the creature so it could be confirmed. Dan was willing to use a humane Havahart to trap the raccoon so I texted back and forth with one of our excellent animal control officers (Suzy Gale) and the Environmental Police Officer on island (Keith Robinson) as well as State Trooper Kevin Bates to arrange for the trap deployment. Two worries come with the arrival of an off-island raccoon washashore: it can potentially carry rabies and if a female, it may be pregnant. Unfortunately raccoons are the number one terrestrial animal that test positive for rabies, accounting for 45.9% of the cases according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s 2012 summary of rabies events (found at on June 21st, 2015).

Raccoons at one time, like many other mammals, were found on the island and were food items for the early Wampanoag and woodland Native Americans living on Nantucket for the past 4,000+ years. Nantucket was once connected to the mainland when glaciers covered North American. The island only recently (geologically) became an island starting about 20,000 years ago as the glaciers began to melt and sea level rose, separating Nantucket from Cape Cod and subsequently stranding mammals and plants to begin their island evolutionary path.

From records of the Nantucket Historical Association we find the following paper regarding the remains of dwelling sites uncovered as a result of island excavations during the building of the Polpis bike path. From Historic Nantucket, Summer 2004 (Vol. 53, No. 3), p. 8-13: “From the two wigwam sites, over 14,000 animal-bone fragments were recovered and studied, leading to the general conclusion that diversity in diet was key to the success of daily life on Nantucket. White-tailed-deer bones and teeth were most common, with other terrestrial species including rabbit, raccoon, turkey, turtle, muskrat, river otter, domestic dog, and domestic cow.”

“In the study of Native American architecture, the Polpis Road investigations provided evidence that traditional house sites were established on Nantucket during the Late Archaic to Early Woodland Period, about 3,000 to 3,500 years ago, and were used well into the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Based on the wide range of animal species identified from food remains, deer, rabbit, raccoon, and seal were potential sources of food as well as skins for clothing, bedding, or wigwam coverings.”

From stalwart homework saver Wikipedia ( we can learn more about the prodigal son or daughter: “The raccoon, Procyon lotor, is a medium-sized mammal native to North America. The raccoon is the largest of the procyonid family, having a body length of 40 to 70 cm (16 to 28 in) and a body weight of 3.5 to 9 kg (8 to 20 lb). Its grayish coat mostly consists of dense underfur which insulates against cold weather. Two of the raccoon’s most distinctive features are its extremely dexterous front paws and its facial mask. Raccoons are noted for their intelligence, with studies showing that they are able to remember the solution to tasks for up to three years. The diet of the omnivorous raccoon, which is usually nocturnal, consists of about 40% invertebrates, 33% plant foods, and 27% vertebrates.”

The word “raccoon” was adopted into English from the native Powhatan term, as used in the Virginia Colony. Raccoons have been observed washing their food in water before consuming it. Although the reasons for this behavior are not really known, it is thought that the sense of touch of the front paws of the raccoon is heightened when wet. Derivations of the raccoon’s common name in various languages capitalized on its food washing behavior in conjunction with the term for “bear”, for example Waschbär in German, orsetto lavatore in Italian, mosómedve in Hungarian and araiguma in Japanese. The raccoon’s scientific name, Procyon lotor, is neo-Latin, meaning “before-dog washer”, with “lotor” Latin for “washer” and Procyon Latinized Greek for “before” “dog”. And although you would think it may be more likely related to a weasel, raccoons are evolutionarily closer relatives to bears.

Raccoons are grey, omnivorous animals surviving on a diet consisting of insects, plants and small animals such as fish and the occasional bird. Raccoons tend to be nocturnal but it is not uncommon to spot a raccoon during the day. The original habitats of the raccoon are deciduous and mixed forests, but due to their adaptability they have extended their range to mountainous areas, coastal marshes, and urban areas. Many cities and suburban environments have proven to be great habitat with lots of food and warm basements and attics that serve well as dens if a raccoon can access them. As a result of escapes and deliberate introductions in the mid-20th century, raccoons are now also distributed across mainland Europe, Caucasia, and Japan. Originally they were only native to North America. Their home range sizes vary anywhere from seven acres for females in cities to 50 km2 (20 square miles) for males in prairies. Although captive raccoons have been known to live over 20 years, their life expectancy in the wild is only 1.8 to 3.1 years. In many areas, hunting and vehicular injury are the two most common causes of death.

The raccoon can adapt to human environments easily; humans provide food sources, such as bird feeders, trash cans, and pet food bowls that are replenished regularly. Urban landscapes provide attractive nuts, buds, and fruits from trees that raccoons find tasty. Once a raccoon has found a handy food source, it will look for a nesting or den site that is relatively close to that food source. Raccoons are very good climbers. As long as we continue to urbanize, cut down native nesting trees, and provide an abundance of food to the raccoon, they will continue to adapt to human environments and pose a threat to homes and human health. If you are wondering if Mr./Ms. Raccoon is on your property you can look for their tracks which are similar to a human hand, but with finger like toes. The front foot- pad has a rounded heel (2″-3″). The rear foot- pad is long and tapered (3″-4″). Their poop or scat is 3″-6″ long, ¼” in diameter and broken up. It usually contains seeds, insects, and mammal hair.

We are hoping that this does not end up like the gray squirrel; I wrote about their introduction and expansion on Nantucket back in 2012: ( Gray squirrels are a recently introduced species and, although so far they have stayed in their own little niche, in some locations on the mainland they have pushed out their brethren and taken over the environment. Nantucket has such a limited number of mammals that a newcomer like the gray squirrel really sticks out. Gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are thought to have arrived around 30 or so years ago most likely on the ferry hidden on a pallet of wood or in the recesses of a truck.

When you go to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife’s web page mammal web page ( accessed June 21 2015), you’ll find a list of every mammal species found in the state. This is a fascinating list showing a variety of hair-brained introductions (European Hare and European Rabbit) across the state and short lived heydays for various creatures (wolves and cougars). And it includes our aquatic mammals too. You’ll see a lot of “except in Nantucket County” entries on the right hand column of the table. Introduced Rodentia nuisance species include the house mouse (Mus musculus), brown or “Norway” rat (Rattus norvegicus) common on Nantucket and famous denizen of seedy parts of the cities, the black rat (Rattus rattus) which has been eradicated statewide. You’ll also see that because we managed to eat all the medium sized rabies carrying mammals that rabies events are rarely if ever recorded here. Only a few species of bats are seen on Nantucket that have the potential to carry rabies.

I’ll report in my article next week whether Rocky/Roxy was captured. The raccoon will be transported off island to live a more fulfilling life minus their Nantucket apparel. And if you have time, come visit us at the UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station at 10:00 am Monday –Friday for a nature walk at 180 Polpis Road. Our summer classes are underway and we still have room in our biology classes with discounts for Nantucket residents. Visit for details or email me at

To read more about archeological finds in relationship to deer and seals, go to:

Articles by Date from 2012