What Is a Tanuki? 8 Surprising Tanuki Facts

Contrary to popular belief, they're not related to raccoons.

wild facts about tanukis

Treehugger / Alex Dos Diaz

The tanuki is a wild canid species native to Japan that is related to wolves, foxes, and domestic dogs. It's also known as the Japanese raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus) and is a subspecies of the raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides) that's found in mainland Asia.

With its thick fur, masked face, and curious nature, the tanuki has served as a cultural icon in Japanese folklore for centuries. The bushy-tailed animal is known as a mischievous trickster that's shown up in legends and myths as a shapeshifter with supernatural abilities. In popular culture, tanuki can be spotted in Nintendo video games and Studio Ghibli films.

Here are eight little-known facts about this fascinating canid species.

1. Tanuki Are Not Related to Raccoons

Despite their masked appearance, tanuki are not close relatives of the common raccoon, the famous species native to the United States. Tanuki belong to the Canidae family, alongside wolves and foxes. In contrast, the common raccoon shares more in common with mustelids, a family that includes weasels, badgers, and otters. Their similar appearance could be a case of convergent evolution, where different species evolve to occupy the same ecological niche.

2. They Can Climb Trees

Tree-climbing isn't a skill often associated with dogs, and in fact, tanuki and the North American gray fox are the only canid species that exhibit this trait. They are accomplished climbers thanks to their curved claws and can be found foraging for berries and fruit among the branches. In addition, their natural habitat is woodlands and marshes, and tanuki are skilled swimmers that will dive underwater to hunt and forage.

3. They Are Bred and Killed in the Fur Trade

A tanuki stands in a cage
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Both the tanuki and its mainland raccoon dog cousin are bred in captivity for the global fur trade. In some instances, their fur has been found in garments that were advertised as containing faux fur. According to the Humane Society of the United States, 70% of the faux fur garments they analyzed contained raccoon dog fur.

Most of the animals killed and sold for their fur are bred in captivity and spend their entire lives in cages. Even when clothing is advertised as animal-free faux fur, it could be a false statement, and it's worth knowing how to check for yourself.

4. They're Considered an Invasive Species in Europe

Originally introduced into Russia to bolster the trapping trade in the early 20th century, the tanuki has spread into all of Europe, where it's considered an invasive species that is threatening biodiversity. With few natural predators and an affinity for scavenging in close proximity to humans, the tanuki population has exploded. Many European nations have started programs to hunt and trap the animal and banned its trade as an exotic pet.

5. They Are Highly Social Creatures

A family of tanuki lies in the grass
Zanna Holstova / Shutterstock

Companionship and family are important for these critters, which usually live in monogamous pairs or in small, close-knit groups. In winter, a mating pair will share a den and raise a litter of pups together. Male tanuki have been observed taking part in family life in ways that other species seem like poor parents. They bring food to their pregnant mates and help to raise their pups, which live alongside them for four to five months after birth.

6. They Are the Only Canines That Hibernate

A tanuki stands on a moss-covered rock in the winter snow
Stanislav Duben / Shutterstock

While wolves, foxes, and other canines have no trouble braving the snowy, barren winter months, tanuki prefer to wait them out and hunker down. In early winter, they will gain weight, decrease their metabolism by 25 to 50%, and settle inside their burrows until warmer weather arrives. They don't go it alone either. These sociable animals are communal hibernators that prefer to spend the long winter in close proximity to their mating partner, though by definition they actually enter a state of torpor rather than hibernation because they remain semi-conscious and will emerge to forage on especially warm days.

7. They Hold an Important Position in Japanese Folklore

The version of tanuki often referred to in Japanese folklore is a mystical creature known as bake-danuki, which can be literally translated as "monster raccoon dog." The creature was first referenced in a text published in 720 AD called "Nihon Shoki," which is one of the oldest Japanese history books, weaving important historical events with mythology and creation stories. Tanuki have since been a recurring figure in folk tales throughout Japanese history, usually appearing as a trickster, shapeshifter, or a sign of good luck.

The mythical version of the animal is often depicted with an oversize scrotum, which has been the source of both comedy and confusion. One theory is that this depiction dates to the 19th century when metal workers wrapped gold in tanuki skin before hammering it into gold leaf. The strength of the tanuki's skin was so great that, according to legend, a tiny piece of gold could be hammered thin enough to stretch across an entire room.

8. They Are One of the Most Ancient Canine Species

The tanuki is considered a basal species, or one of the species most similar to its ancestors. Thousands of years ago, most dogs probably looked more like the tanuki than your modern domestic pet. Since tanuki do not bark—instead whining, growling, and mewling—and are more omnivorous than most other wild dogs, it's ancient lineage provides insight into the diverse origins of canine species. Fossil found in the Tochigi Prefecture of Japan suggests the first tanuki appeared between 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago during the Pleistocene era.