On Thursday, scientists released new data on the possible origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, putting a strange, stubby creature in the spotlight.
Meet the raccoon dog; gets its name from its black facial markings, which give the animal a masked appearance and a more than passing resemblance to those infamous urban garbage can raiders.
the animals were at least occasionally sold at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where many virologists suspect the Covid-19 pandemic may have started.
Scientists had previously announced that swabs on the market had tested positive for the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. The new data revealed that some of these same swabs also contained substantial raccoon dog genetic material.
The findings did not prove that the raccoon dogs were infected with the virus or that they had transmitted it to humans. But they are consistent with the possibility that wild animals in the market have triggered the covid-19 pandemic.
More about the coronavirus pandemic
Here’s what you should know about the animal in the news.
What are raccoon dogs?
Despite their name, raccoon dogs are not closely related to raccoons. They are members of the canid family, a group that also includes domestic dogs, and are most closely related to foxes.
Raccoon dogs are omnivorous, feeding on food sources such as rodents and berries. Although they appear slender in the summer, they gain weight for the winter, when their fur also becomes thicker. They are the only canid species known to hibernate and are monogamous, often living in pairs.
Where they live?
Raccoon dogs are native to East Asia, including parts of China, Korea, and Japan, where they are known as tanuki.
They have also become widespread in parts of Europe, where they are considered an invasive species. Sometimes they are hunted like pests.
Why are they grown and sold?
Raccoon dogs have long been bred for their fur. China is a leading producer of raccoon dog fur; in 2014, the country produced more than 14 million skins, 100 times more than Europe, according to a report.
They are also sold for their meat in live animal markets. They were sold at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market until at least November 2019, researchers have reported.
Are they the source of the virus that causes Covid-19?
Not necessarily. Laboratory experiments have shown that raccoon dogs are susceptible and capable of transmitting the novel coronavirus. But that does not mean that they are the natural reservoir of the virus. Even if the raccoon dogs in the market were infected, they could have been an intermediate host, contracting the virus from bats or other species.
Raccoon dogs and bats were common in and around some of the farms that supplied the market, the scientists said.
A similar scenario may have played out two decades ago, after the appearance of SARS, which is also caused by a coronavirus. In 2003, scientists evidence found of infected palm civets and raccoon dogs at a live animal market in Shenzen, China. But subsequent research eventually pointed to bats as the natural reservoir of the virus that causes SARS; raccoon dogs appeared to be intermediate hosts.
Can I pet a raccoon dog if I see one?
It’s probably not a good idea, tempting as it may be. Aside from covid-19, animals are known to be vectors of other diseases, including rabies. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recommended against Keeping raccoon dogs as pets.