The Giant Raccoon (Chapmalania altaefronis)


A procyonid (Cyonasaura) was among the first North American mammals that island-hopped to South America before a landbridge between the 2 continents full emerged. Like its living cousin, the raccoon, the cyonosaura was attracted to aquatic environments, thus explaining how, perchance, it found its way across islands to South America.  An ecological niche for a bear-sized omnivore was available on this continent, so cyonasaura evolved into chapmalania, a beast that was really just a giant raccoon.  There were few carnivores capable of stopping chapmalania from muscling in on a carcass here then.  Scientists have discovered evidence chapmalania scavenged a dead glyptodont–teeth marks on 1 individual fossil exactly match those of the giant raccoon.  However, chapmalania probably had a varied diet that included plant matter and aquatic organisms.  Chapmalania lived during the Pliocene from 5 million years BP-1.9 million years BP. Bears finally made it to South America at the end of the Pliocene, and they eventually occupied chapmalania’s ecological niche.  They probably outcompeted and replaced them.

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Size comparison between the giant raccoon, a human, and a Volkswagon.

Although chapmalania became extinct, there are still at least 17 living species of procyonids.  The most familiar are the abundant North American raccoon (Procyon lotor), and the crab-eating raccoon (P. cancrivan) of South America.  The pygmy raccoon (P. pygmaeus) is restricted to the Cozumel Island off the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico.  This island has been isolated from the mainland for 100,000 years, and genetic studies suggest the Cozumel raccoon diverged from its ancestral population about 60,000 years ago.

The pygmy raccoon of Cozumel Island off the coast of Yucatan.  They differ from more familiar raccoons in their smaller size and golden ringed tails.

There are 4 species of coatimundis.  The white-nosed coatimundi (Nasua naria) ranges throughout Mexica and as far north as Arizona.  N. nasua lives in the tropical jungles of South America, while the other 2 species of coatimundis are restricted to cloud forests there.

Coati foraging.

White-nosed coatimundi, an inhabitant of Mexican deserts.

The ringtail (Bassariscus astutus) inhabits rocky arid habitats throughout Mexico and as far north as Oregon and as far east as Kansas.  They’re known as miner’s cats because they tamed easily and lived in miner’s cabins where they kept mice populations low.  A new species of ringtail (B sumichasti) was discovered in 2013.

Pair of ringtails

Ringtails.  Another procyonid that prefers arid habitat.

The kinkajou (Potus flavus) and olingos (Bassaricyon sps.) inhabit the canopies of tropical forests where they subsist on fruit and insects.

Photo: Kinkajou holding a balsa blossom

The kinkajou lives in tropical forest canopies.

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