Mythbusting the Cotton-Candy Raccoon

He wasn’t trying to wash his food—he was wetting his paws to better understand what he was holding.

Earlier this week, before the high drama of #DrummondPuddleWatch, another riveting puddle—and its furry co-star—captivated the Internet. In a rather emotional Vine, a lone raccoon drops his cotton candy into an unassuming puddle, only to have the treat dissolve into thin air before his eyes. He grasps frantically for the once-fluffy mass, but it does no good: All that’s left is diluted sugar water, trickling through his paws like sand.

As others have already noted, there's a metaphor somewhere in this clip—something about dreams lost, or goals never reached. But it’s made all the more tragic by the fact that this cotton-candy bath was likely an intentional decision on the raccoon’s part. In any other circumstance, it would be a vital part of his ability to feel and experience the food: Before they eat something, most raccoons need to wet it first, in order to gain more sensory information about the object via the nerve endings in their paws.

This ritual has led to a common misconception that raccoons wash their food before consuming it. They don’t—the act of moistening their meals is more to enhance their understanding of what they’re eating. Unlike humans, raccoons rely on touch rather than sight as their primary means of taking in information about their environments. According to Northern Woodlands magazine, a publication run by Vermont’s Center for Woodlands Education, raccoons are effectively “seeing”an item when they touch it, gathering “nearly two-thirds of [their] sensory data … from cells that interpret various types of touch sensation.” Their dexterous paws contain “four to five times more mechanoreceptors than most mammals,” enabling them to grasp, manipulate, and interpret the objects as well as humans and primates.

A key component that facilitates this sense of touch is water, which helps amplify the receptiveness of the nerve endings in the paws and significantly heightens the raccoon’s tactile senses. In a 1986 study of 136 raccoons published in Somatosensory Research, scientists discovered that wetting the skin of the paws dramatically increased their sensitivity. As How Stuff Works explains in a post on the subject, raccoons’ use of water for their sense of touch is similar to how we use light to see. In the same way that light entering the eye increases optical-nerve responsiveness and helps a person to see better, water touching the raccoon’s paw improves tactile-nerve responsiveness and provides more information about a prospective snack. And since the animals are open to eating pretty much anything—whether it’s found in the wild or in a human’s waste bin—the ability to separate the edible from the inedible is particularly important.

Raccoons’ behavior with food and water has historically confounded researchers. Previously, scientists have even speculated that the creatures suffered from some sort of chronic dry mouth, or a dearth of salivary glands (although studies have since disproved these theories). In the case of this specific raccoon, it’s likely he was merely treating his cotton candy the same way he’s prepared countless worms and plants so many times before. Unluckily for him, this meal just happened to be more soluble than most.