Episode 200 – Tanuki: The Racoon Dog

“…and today, on our 200th episode, we’re talking about an adorable video game character.”

For a true generalist, nothing is off the menu. Sometimes survival is all about versatility, and if you have an adventurous palate, there are more resources at your disposal. For one Japanese canine, finding enough food to last through the winter is a matter of life and death, so being picky isn’t an option. But what happens when the tanuki comes across a food that may threaten his Life, Death, and Taxonomy. 


  • Looks like a cross between a raccoon and a pomeranian
  • Picture a little poofy pomeranian with his adorable little snout, skinny legs, and extremely fluffy coat.
  • The ears are smaller and rounded and the tail is long, furry, and spotted. It’s not really ringed like the raccoon’s. Looking up “tanuki tail” lands you in the furry territory fast.
  • Their fur is light brown flaked with dark brown. It has darker spots on their eyes (like a raccoon’s), chest, legs, and tail
  • In short, they are smol and cute

Measure Up

Welcome to the beloved Measure Up segment. The official listener’s favorite part of the show! The part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words Measure Up into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. We don’t have a new Measure Up intro but we have something better!


  • 45 to 71 cm (18 to 28 in)
  • How many tanukis go into the Tokyo Sky Tree, the world’s tallest tower?
  • Hint: The observation tower includes high speed lifts to take people to the top. When it opened in 2012, visitors waited for more than a week to get tickets to the opening. It also functions as a radio and television broadcasting tower. 
  • 891 tanukis. The tower is 634m (2,080ft).

Summer Weight

  • 6.5–7 kg (14–15 lb)
  • How many of the world’s largest strawberry would the tanuki have to eat to eat it’s weight in the world’s largest strawberry?
  • Hint: The big berry was grown by Mr. Koji Nakao from Fukuoka, Japan. Mr. Nakao’s daughter said it was delicious.
  • 27 stawberries. The strawberry weighed  250 g (8.82 oz).

Fast Facts About the Tanuki

  • Range: Live in Japan near water in evergreen forests.
  • Diet: Omnivorous – mostly rodents, fish, birds, eggs, lizards, frogs as well as fruits, nuts, and berries.
  • Behavior: Like raccoons, they are nocturnal and spend most of their time in small groups foraging for food.
    • They are some of the only mammals to be monogamous.
    • Tanukis are also some of the only dogs to hibernate during winter.
    • They can climb trees with their curved claws.
    • They’re dogs, but they don’t bark. Instead, they have high-pitched whines like my son when he drops the latest piece of recycling he’s obsessed with.
  • Tanuki sunset is a video game where you play as a skateboarding tanuki grinding along the neon synthwave highway.
  • Mario 3D World has a special tanooki suit that lets you float around.
  • In Japanese folklore, the tanuki is a mischievous demon called a Yokai that wears a sombrero and holds a tiny lantern and what appears to be a sake bottle.
    • Its testicles are magical and can shapeshift into a blanket, parachute, or even a boat.
    • Tanuki statues are kept as good luck charms in shops.

Major Fact: Iron Stomach

The tanuki is a generalist, which means that it eats a wide variety of foods. We mentioned how the raccoon is a quintessential example of a generalist. But these raccoon cosplayers are even more generalist. 

They’ll consume fruit, vegetables, eggs, shrews, hedgehogs, birds, moles, and basically everything. 

Why is it Spicy?

More interestingly, they will eat frogs, including fire-bellied toads and European spadefoot toads. The problem is that toads are poisonous. Our American raccoons also eat frogs, but they’ve developed a trick to eat around the poison. Toads secrete poison on their backs and raccoons have learned to flip the frogs over on their bellies to eat everything but the surfaces of their backs.  

Not so with the raccoon dog. Our friend the tanuki gobbles the whole thing up and spits out the poison. Sort of. 

Apparently, they produce excessive amounts of saliva when they eat poisonous toads. The drool dilutes the poison to make it less toxic to the raccoon dog. I could only trace this often-repeated fact to a book called Foxes, Wolves, and Dogs of the World. I don’t understand how this works.

But in my travels on the internet I found another interesting fact. Raccoon dogs have something weird going on in their taste buds. 

It’s in the Genes and I Was Going to be Wearing Jeans

A 2017 study looked at the genes of the tanuki and found that they have a ton of bitter taste receptor genes. Bitter taste receptors, or Tas2r, are thought to develop in animals to help them detect when food is toxic. 

The study noted that bitter taste receptors are especially important among generalists, who are more likely to encounter toxins. Not only do they eat more stuff like frogs and barriers, they also tend to be more adventurous eaters. 

But, they also found that most of the Tas2r genes are under purifying selection, which is the selective removal of genes that are harmful. 

Two of them are under positive selection, which means they’re here to stay. One of these is Tas2r10, which is a receptor that humans have. It’s able to detect 20 natural bitter compounds. The other is Tas2r67 which we don’t have. 

So over the generations, they needed all these bitter taste receptors to not die, but now they only need two. Maybe they’ve figured out ways to get around toxins and getting rid of some receptors will make more food palatable. 

Ending: So hibernate during winter if you can, keep your sake to yourself, and use your – um – extremities to help not hinder like the tanuki here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.