Native to East Asia is a member of the canine family with a distinct appearance like that of a raccoon and so these animals are often called Asian Raccoon Dogs.
A subspecies of Asian Raccoon Dogs found in Japan bear the local name of a creature that has long been a part of Japanese folklore – the shape-shifting trickster known as the Tanuki.
Despite their similar facial features to that of a raccoon – especially the characteristic black mask around the eyes, Tanuki – or Japanese Raccoon Dogs, are not raccoons or dogs -but they are more closely related to foxes.
With a length of 2 feet, mature Tanuki may weigh from 5 to 20 pounds. Tanuki fur ranges in color from yellow-grey to reddish-brown. The fur coat grows thicker in autumn and winter seasons. The shoulders, tip of the tail, and the legs of the Tanuki are black.
They tend to be most active at dawn and dusk however it is not uncommon for them to forage during daytime hours. Similar to foxes, Tanuki tend to avoid people in most areas and so this lack of daytime activity has caused them to sometimes to be considered nocturnal.
Raccoon Dogs are highly adaptable to a wide range of habitats including forests, farmland, coastal regions and urban areas. Tanuki are often found near water in many of their ranges.
As opportunistic omnivores, they are known to eat just about anything from frogs and lizards to birds and rodents as well as crabs, fish, human garbage and carrion – including roadkill.
Though efforts have been made to remove populations from urban locations in Japan, Tanuki will often return.
From the 1920s throught the 1950s – the Soviet Union purposefully introduced Asian Raccoon Dogs to parts of eastern Europe for the fur trade. The animals were released into the wild and the Raccoon Dog’s range now includes parts of Finland near the Arctic Circle – a testament to their ability to adapt to extreme conditions.
Tanuki are considered the only member of the canine family to hibernate – this behavior is actually known as torpor. Torpor is simply a state of lethargy but unlike hibernation, Tanuki will often emerge on warmer winter days to forage.
Tanuki are known to be good climbers, with their sharp claws they have the ability to climb trees – similar to some fox species. They can also swim and even dive underwater to catch prey like crabs.
Raccoon dogs do not bark, but they will growl or hiss when threatened. Their vocalizations are higher in pitch than a dog’s and are said to sound more like a cats or other animals.
Tanuki form monogamous, permanent pairs that share a home range and forage together. Tanuki will often make their breeding nests in tree hollows. The average Raccoon Dog litter size is six and both parents participate in their care. Often the males will provide food for a female and her pups.
Like most canines, Tanuki make excellent use of their sense of smell. Scents are also used as a means of communication – especially the use of latrines, which are often just piles of feces left in the middle of a clearing or open area.
As a rather shy animal, Tanuki tend to flee from confrontation but will sometimes appear to “play dead” to avoid predators.
Due to their wide range of distribution, especially as invasive species – currently Raccoon Dogs are considered as species of least concern. However, they are sometimes farmed for their fur – known as murmansky – which has been falsely labeled as faux fur, when in fact it is real animal fur.
Another threat that Tanuki face today in Japan is – oddly enough – invasive raccoons which share similar habitats and diet – especially near areas of human populations.
Often portrayed as comical and mischievous shape-shifting fantasy creatures whodec ieve humans in Japanese folklore – the Tanuki has also been featured in more recent popular culture including the inspiration of the Tanuki suit in the Super Mario 3 game and as the main character Tom Nook in the popular video game series Animal Crossings.
Today, Tanuki are rarely seen in most zoos throughout the world and only 2 accredited zoos in the United States are currently home to these special members of the canine family. Zoo Atlanta is home to Loki and Thor – who are often featured on the zoo’s social media pages. The Oklahoma City Zoo is now home to four Japanese Raccoon Dogs including Una – a rare white, leucistic Tanuki.
Black-breasted Leaf Turtle
Easily recognized by its brown to orange shell and large, almost owl-looking eyes – the Black-breasted Leaf Turtle may actually be hard to spot. Measuring less than 5 inches long, the Black-breasted Leaf Turtle is one of the world’s smallest turtle species.
Native only in mountainous forest regions of southern China and northern Vietnam, the Black-breasted Leaf Turtle, sometimes known as the Vietnamese Leaf Turtle, is almost completely terrestrial, spending most of its time hiding among the leaf litter on the forest floor, often near streams.
This species gets its name from both the dark underside and shape of its shell. The hard top portion of the shell, known as the carapace, is brown or orange in color with serrated edges that almost resemble teeth along the back scutes. The underside of the shell, called the plastron – is black in the center with a yellow border. The top of the carapace has three distinct ridges that also give the appearance of a leaf – serving as perfect camouflage for this tiny turtle among its preferred habitat.
The head is olive to dark brown in color with faint yellow markings – females tend to have a more striped pattern. Black-breasted Leaf Turtles also possess a strongly pronounced beak.
Perhaps the most notable feature of this species are their large, bulging eyes with a stark light colored iris – giving them an wide-eyed or alert expression. Females have a tan colored iris surround the black pupil while males have a bright white color – adding to this almost inquisitive, owl-like expression.
Black-breasted Leaf Turtles will often sit still for long periods of time, perhaps hours, with their neck fully extended and their large eyes wide open, watching for potential prey – or possible predators. Like a chameleon – they have the ability to move each eye independently as they survey their surroundings.
Black-breasted Leaf Turtles, like many turtles or omnivorous. they will eat insects, earthworms, snails and slugs as well as various fruits.
Research has found that once a prey item is spotted nearby, they will fix both eyes on it’s target and keep both eyes there even when the vision of one eye is obstructed. To aid in seeing in the low light of the forest floor among the loose vegetation and leaves, the pupil responds quickly to changes in ambient light intensity. They also appear to be easily distracted by motion and they may even abandon prey in their jaws if startled.
Due to their small size and unique appearance Black-breasted Leaf Turtles are sometimes sold as pets – often referred to by another name – the Spengler’s Turtle. Unfortunately their presence in the pet trade is one of the main reasons they are currently classified as endangered. The unsustainable collection from the wild for both the pet trade (illegal in some areas, including Vietnam) and for use in Chinese traditional medicine practices has led to their greatly declining numbers in their native habitats.
Many wild Black-breasted Leaf Turtles intended for the pet trade are confiscated each year by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, often these animals are then managed by rescue organizations like the Turtle Conservancy or accredited zoological facilities. Unfortunately many more are not rescued and in time this endangered and unique species may become extinct.
One of the most recognizable creatures on the planet and a symbol of conservation.
While their scientific name means “black and white cat-footed animal” and
a common Chinese name translates to “large-bear cat.” This distinctly colored resident of China is well known around the world as the Giant Panda.
The Giant Panda – sometimes called Panda Bear or simply Pandas are classified in the family Ursidae as one of the world’s eight species of bears along with the polar, brown, American black, asiatic black/moon, sun, sloth and Andean/spectacled bears).
However, Giant Pandas were once placed in the same family as raccoons and their relatives – this classification was originally due to some similarities with another animal incorrectly place in this animal group – the red panda. The red panda was first described in publication 48 years before the discovery of the animal that would become known as Giant Panda due to size comparisons – the red panda however is technically the only panda since they remain a distinct animal species while the Giant Pandas are in fact – bears.
Despite the name “giant” Panda, they are one of the smaller bear species. Adult Giant Pandas stand about 2-3 feet tall at the shoulder. Females usually weigh about 220 lbs, while males may weigh around 275 lbs.
Giant pandas have a body typical of bears – stocky and barrel shaped. Their legs are shorter than most bears and their forequarters are larger than their hindquarters. They are covered in a short, thick, wooly fur to protect them in the cold and snow.
They are best recognized by their striking markings: white overall with black patches around their eyes, on their ears, limbs and on their chest around to their shoulders. The exact purpose for these unique markings is still unknown. It is believed the black and white markings could provide camouflage, blending in with the patches of light and dark among the dense bamboo forests or snow.
Giant Pandas are restricted to six south central Chinese mountainous regions. Inhabiting elevations between 5,000 and 10,000 feet where a dense understory of bamboo is present, the climate in these temperate forested mountains is usually cool and damp, the landscape often shrouded in clouds and fog. Snow may be common in winter.
Despite their roley-poly appearance, Giant Pandas are excellent tree climbers and they have extremely powerful jaws. A very pronounced sagittal crest, robust jaw muscles and large strong molars give the Panda an incredibly powerful bite. Forepaws have five digits and a “pseudo-thumb.” The pseudo-thumb is an enlarged wrist bone with attached muscles and aids in grasping and manipulating bamboo stems.
They feed almost exclusively on bamboo; nearly 99% of their diet consists of bamboo. They consume the leaves, shoots and roots. They have been found to prefer to live in regions around more than one species of bamboo, requiring at least 2 species of the plant to avoid starvation, since all plants of a single bamboo species flower, die and regenerate at the same time. The Giant Panda bears are known to eat more than 25 different species of bamboo. Usually while sitting down on the forest floor.
Bamboo does not have a very high nutritional value and since the pandas digestive system is surprisingly inefficient much of what is eaten is passed as waste. To make up for this, they will spend 10-16 hours a day eating around 20-40 lbs, or even up to 80 lbs, of bamboo, the rest of the time is usually spent resting and sleeping.
The remaining 1% of their diet is made up of other plants or fruit and occasionally eggs, small animals and carrion. Giant pandas have been known to forage in farmlands for pumpkins, kidney beans, wheat and even pig food.
Their guts are much shorter than would be expected for a plant eating animal. Total length of gut is only 4 times the length of the body, for comparison, other exclusive plant eaters such as deer have guts 10-22 times the length of their entire body. They have a very simple stomach with no foregut or hindgut fermentation like other herbivores would.
Giant panda genome sequencing detects no digestive enzymes specifically for plant cellulose, yet it also detects that giant pandas may have lost the ability to taste protein.
Adult giant pandas are solitary, coming together only to breed. They will often vocalize during social interactions. They may chirp, honk, bark, chomp and bleat. Much of their communication is done through scent. Under their short, 5-inch long tail lies their scent gland.
Females are only fertile for 2 to 3 days and may only have cubs every 2 to 3 years. The female gives birth to usually one or two cubs in a den or tree hollow after a gestation period of 80-180 days. In the wild, only one cub usually survives since it extremely difficult for the mother to care for two cubs. Cubs are born completely helpless. They are pink with a sparse covering of white hairs and their eyes are closed. They weigh only 3-5 ounces when first born – only about 1/900th the size of the mother.
Adult giant pandas have no known natural predators. Cubs, however, are far more vulnerable. Yellow-throated martens, golden cats, Asian dogs known as dholes and leopards may prey upon a young panda.
Giant Pandas have been downgraded from endangered to vulnerable but they still face threats. Deforestation threatens their forest homes. Many other species share habitat with giant pandas such as, takins, golden monkeys and pheasants. Giant Pandas are considered an “umbrella species” – by protecting the Panda and its habitats, we are also helping save other species.
Less than 2,000 Giant Pandas remain in the wild and an additional 600 in zoos and breeding centers around the world. Currently, only three U.S. zoos house giant pandas: Smithsonian’s National Zoo, Memphis Zoo and Zoo Atlanta. The giant pandas are on loan from China and have been a part of breeding and research programs to help preserve and learn more about these iconic creatures.
The beloved and iconic Giant Panda has long been, and will continue to be, a symbol of conservation – an ambassador that shows the power of working together to make a difference and save a species.
Special thanks to the following organizations for their education, research and conservation programs that provided information for this episode:
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