On Thursday (16), scientists revealed new data about the possible origins of covid-19 pandemic —and put a strange, stocky creature squarely in the spotlight.
Meet the raccoon dog. It gets its name from its black facial markings, which give it a masked appearance and a more-than-quick resemblance to the infamous urban garbage can invaders of the northern hemisphere.
The animals were at least occasionally sold at the Huanan Fish Market, where many virologists suspect that the Covid pandemic may have started.
Scientists had previously announced that samples from the market had tested positive for the coronavirus that causes Covid. The new data revealed that some of these samples contained substantial genetic material from raccoon dogs.
The findings did not prove that raccoon dogs were infected with the virus or that they transmitted it to humans. But they are consistent with the possibility that wild animals at the market could have triggered the Covid pandemic.
Learn more below about the animal that made the news.
What are raccoon dogs?
Despite their name, raccoon dogs are not closely related to raccoons. They are members of the canidae family, which includes domestic dogs, and are most closely related to foxes.
Raccoon dogs are omnivores, feeding on sources such as rodents and wild berries. Although they look tapered in the summer, they gain weight in the winter when their coat also gets thicker. They are the only known canid species that hibernate and are monogamous, often living in pairs.
Where they live?
Raccoon dogs are native to eastern Asiaincluding parts of China, Korea e Japanwhere they are known as “tanuki”.
They have also spread into parts of Europe, where they are considered an invasive species and are sometimes hunted as pests.
Why are they created and sold?
Raccoon dogs have long been bred for fur production. China is a major producer of raccoon dog fur; in 2014, the country produced more than 14 million furs, 100 times more than Europe, according to a report.
They are also sold for their meat in live animal markets. They were sold in the Huanan market until at least November 2019, researchers reported.
Are they the source of the virus that causes Covid?
Not necessarily. Laboratory experiments have shown that raccoon dogs are susceptible and capable of transmitting the new coronavirus. But this does not mean that they are the natural reservoir of the virus. Even if raccoon dogs from the Chinese market were infected, they could have been intermediate hosts, picking up the virus from bats or other species.
Raccoon dogs and bats were common around some of the farms that supplied the market, the scientists noted.
A similar scenario may have played out two decades ago, after the emergence of Sars, also caused by a coronavirus. In 2003, scientists found evidence of infected palm civets and raccoon dogs at a live animal market in Shenzhen, China. But later research pointed to bats as the natural reservoir for the virus that causes SARS; raccoons appear to be intermediate hosts.
Can I pet a raccoon dog if I see one?
It’s probably not a good idea, however tempting. In addition to Covid, animals are known vectors of other diseases, including rabies. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recommends not keeping raccoon dogs as pets.
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves
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