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Raccoon dogs: the whats and whys of my PhD in Natural History

“Raccoon dogs, What?!”

Raccoon dogs, what?!”, what I usually hear from everyone who is brave enough to ask what I’m studying. Yes, there is such an animal called raccoon dogs.

For my PhD dissertation, I am exploring the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes, which has been widely analyzed to assess immunological fitness and evolutionary adaptation of animal population. In my case, I seek to understand how these MHC genes in raccoon dogs evolve and what are the various factors that could have affected it.

By the way, I’m a biologist. Currently, my areas of expertise include molecular biodiversity, population genetics, and molecular evolution of mammalian carnivores, but I also explored the fascinating world of decapods, fiddler crabs, during my Master’s degree.

I’m still a newbie in this fascinating world of research, and I would love to dive into it more, collaborate with like-minded people, and explore the remarkable world of natural history.

Okay, let’s return to the main topic.

What exactly is a raccoon dog?

A raccoon dog has the appearance similar to raccoons, with a prominent black mask on their face that makes them look like a bandit, however, they are way more different from the true raccoons. Raccoon dogs are ancestrally more related to the dog family than raccoons.

A taxidermy of a raccoon dog.

Raccoon dogs are exceptional. They have the capability to hibernate through winter, a unique characteristic that sets them apart from other canids. They also help mitigate insect pests and facilitates seed dispersal because of its omnivorous behavior. Even though, they have been reported to be affected by various pathogens causing diseases1 and endoparasites2, these pathogens and parasites have not prevented the raccoon dog’s wide expansion in the Far Eastern Asia and Europe. Their successful expansion was due to their adaptability, high reproductive potential, omnivorous feeding behavior, their ability to hibernate in cold regions, and their innate ability to explore new land areas 3.

Raccoon dogs are not famous like giant pandas, polar bears, and baby harp seals. They are not famous nor appealing to the eyes. Initially, you cannot identify how people will benefit from them. They are known to be a scary mythical creature in Japan and are an invasive species (pest) in northern Europe. But, behind those labels, they are a creature full of goodness. They are resilient, strong, and their capability to adapt is higher than other canids. They are courageous, adventurous, and loyal.

So, why raccoon dogs?

That’s the next big question. Why? Mainly, because my Professor has a refrigerator full of samples from places all over Japan, Russia and even from the European regions. AHAHA! Kidding aside, because I was curious.

I was so curious to know who they really are. It seems that there are so many gaps of knowledge that are still waiting to be discovered for them. If only someone interested will see them, love them for who they really are, accept their uniqueness, and who can give his/her full attention to them even when they are not that famous (a non-model species) nor beneficial at first glance.

So, why raccoon dogs? Maybe, because I can see myself in them. I’m not scary nor mythical. I’m just reminded how Someone took the courage to love me and accept me for who I really am, even with all my quirkiness and flaws. Who continually sees and brings out the best in me, even when others were unable to pass the bad labels. Someone who is interested in me when others see me boring, and Someone who believes in me when I myself don’t believe in my capabilities anymore.

… and that Someone is God!

So why raccoon dogs?

Because of the word “COMPASSION”.

Empathetic Biologist

How about you? Have you ever contemplated about the reasons behind the things you are passionate about?

“I have no special talents.

I am only passionately curious.” 

Albert Einstein


1 Singer A, Kauhala K, Holmala K, Smith GC. 2009. Rabies in northeastern Europe–the threat from invasive raccoon dogs. Journal of Wildlife Diseases 45: 1121–1137.

1 Qi X, Li X, Rider P, Fan W, Gu H, Xu L, Yang Y, Lu S, Wang H, Liu F. 2009. Molecular characterization of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza A viruses isolated from raccoon dogs in China. PLoS ONE 4: e4682.

2 Al-Sabi MNS, Chriel M, Jensen TH, Enermark HL. 2013. Endoparasites of the raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides) and the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) in Denmark 2009–2012 – A comparative study. International Journal for Parasitology: Parasites and Wildlife 2: 144–151.

2 Laurimaa L, Suld K, Davison J, Moks E, Valdmann H, Saarma U. 2016. Alien species and their zoonotic parasites in native and introduced ranges: he raccoon dog example. Veterinary Parasitology 219: 24–33.

3 Kauhala K, Kowalczyk, R. 2011. Invasion of the raccoon dog Nyctereutes procyonoides in Europe: History of colonization, features behind its success, and threats to native fauna. Current Zoology 57: 584–598.

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Published by empatheticbiologist

Hi, I’m Aye Mee. A lady with an adventurous heart. I spend most of my time discovering new places, thoughts and ideas. This blog is dedicated to sharing my thoughts and favorites with you! I'm also a nature enthusiast who loves to connect and think deeply as the screen name empathetic biologist connotes.

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