Not all heroes wear capes, but most of them do wear masks. Even raccoons.
Yesterday (June 12), a daredevil raccoon in St. Paul, Minnesota, captivated the Internet by climbing 23 stories up a vertical concrete wall. The raccoon, now known as MPR raccoon in honor of the Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) employees who spotted the critter scaling a nearby skyscraper, became an instant social media star as viewers around the world rooted for its safe return to the ground. [The 5 Smartest Non-Primates on the Planet]
The raccoon rested on various window ledges during its daring climb (resulting in some amazing photos) and ultimately reached the building's roof this morning around 3 a.m. local time. At the end of the day, MPR raccoon had spent nearly 20 hours scaling the concrete building — alone, afraid and totally bereft of food and water.
The raccoon has been safely captured, but many questions remain. Why would a raccoon climb 23 stories straight up instead of climbing down? And how is this even possible? According to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources employee Bryan Lueth, it may be a simple mix of instinct and anatomy.
"If I had to come up with a scenario," Lueth told MPR, "I would say it was maybe holed up in an alley … ran out onto the sidewalk, and then there's all these people around. It's like 'Ah!' The natural instinct is to climb."
Raccoons are notoriously skilled climbers. Because many raccoons make their dens near populated human settlements where garbage is plentiful, they're used to scurrying up trees, chimneys and buildings to stay out of harm's way, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFD) wrote on its website.
Nature has equipped raccoons well for this job. Sharp, nonretractable nails cap each of their long fingers and toes, and are perfect for digging into craggy surfaces like trees and cliffs. Unlike your house cat, raccoons can even rotate their back paws 180 degrees to climb down surfaces headfirst, the WDFD wrote.
This means raccoons can, and will, climb pretty much anything they can get their paws around — your car, your garbage can or even your modest metropolitan skyscraper. One famous 1907 study on raccoon intelligence marveled at the animal's ability to climb the bare steam pipes in the laboratory "with as much ease as though they were the trees of the forest." (The study also found that raccoons are ticklish … Science was different back then.)
"Digging into tree bark is certainly a little bit easier than hard stone," Lueth said, "but there must've been enough cracks or crevices or textures where [MPR raccoon] could get a grip [on the building]."
While some are hailing MPR raccoon as the hero Gotham City deserves, it seems the critter may have just been raccooning the only way raccoons know how. And that's good enough for us.
Originally published on Live Science.
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Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.